Robotics is an increasingly sophisticated discipline, but for the sake of humanity (and their potential profits), some major names in innovation are doing their best to prevent AI from totally dominating us.
Have no fear: When the robots make their move against humanity, companies like Amazon, DeepMind/Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft will have our backs.
Well, that’s what the tech behemoths would have us believe.
As Will Knight notes for the MIT Technology Review: “That such fierce rivals would come together in this way shows how important the companies feel it is to head off public concern and speculation over the potential impacts of AI.”
I can’t help but think of the pact that united Hitler and Stalin, just before Germany and the Soviet Union engaged in the deadliest one-on-one conflict in human history.
Look, none of Bezos, Brin, Zuckerberg, or any of the other mucky mucks in charge of those dominant enterprises is either “Hitlerian” or “Stalinesque.” Those two creatures are extremely unique, if not in world history, then at least in the context of the 20th century.
But the fact that these latter-day tech masters would form the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society is a pretty clear indication of the weight of the matters at hand.
The division of Europe was a big deal.
And so is the future of artificial intelligence.
Of course the real, legitimate concern about computers, robotics, and AI is more prosaic, summed up by Erik Brynjolfsson’s and Andrew McAfee’s contention that the slowdown in jobs growth during the last decade and a half is the result of automation’s impact on manufacturing, clerical, and retail employment.
The future, as David Rotman notes in a June 12, 2013, piece for MIT Technology Review, will see AI move into more sophisticated disciplines such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.
In the introduction to their 2012 e-book Race Against the Machine, Brynjolfsson and McAfee, both of MIT’s Center for Digital Business, write:
When people talk about jobs in America today, they talk about cyclicality, outsourcing and off-shoring, taxes and regulation, and the wisdom and efficacy of different kinds of stimulus. We don’t doubt the importance of all these factors. The economy is a complex, multifaceted entity.
But there has been relatively little talk about role of acceleration of technology. It may seem paradoxical that faster progress can hurt wages and jobs for millions of people, but we argue that’s what’s been happening. As we’ll show, computers are now doing many things that used to be the domain of people only. The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications. Perhaps the most important of these is that while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people, or even a lot of them, worse off.
But the authors conclude their work by describing the positive net impact digital technology will have on humanity: “[W]hen we look at the full impact of computers and networks, now and in the future, we are very optimistic indeed. These tools are greatly improving our world and our lives, and will continue to do so.”
Amazon, DeepMind/Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft are all making a lot of progress with AI.
IBM, for example, has taken a giant step with a processor designed based on the architecture of the human brain, its TrueNorth chip.
In a paper published in the September 9, 2016, issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, IBM researchers demonstrated that TrueNorth is a viable “neuromorphic network” capable of incorporating the current deep-learning standard “convolutional neural networks” to establish a new state of the art.
As Dharmendra Modha, chief scientist for brain-inspired computing at IBM Research-Almaden, told IEEE Spectrum, “The new milestone provides a palpable proof of concept that the efficiency of brain-inspired computing can be merged with the effectiveness of deep learning, paving the path towards a new generation of chips and algorithms with even greater efficiency and effectiveness.”
In addition to enabling even further automation of hitherto human functions in the economy — industrial robots are on the march! — AI will soon permeate our lives.
Uber is already testing a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The current state of the art relies on sensors, radar, cameras, and data communication systems — with humans in the driver’s seat.
Apple and Google, among others, are at work on fully autonomous vehicles that will run on AI.
The aerospace and defense industry has been making use of unmanned aerial vehicles for years now. Soon we’ll see AI fighter pilots. UPS and Amazon are in the early stages of drone-delivery warfare.
“Robo-advisers” have entered the financial services industry. The present and future of financial technology is rooted in AI and its ability to enable electronic and mobile banking, simplification of payment processes, acceleration of trade settlement, more efficient security and fraud protection, as well as credit verification.
AI is going to be a key driver of the growth of the Internet of Things due to its ability to process enormous amounts of data. AI-based analytics will be a big growth market, with applications including web search, marketing, digital security, and financial services.
Meanwhile, InTouch Health’s “telehealth” machine connects patients to specialists for acute (emergency and intensive) care, post-acute (skilled nursing, home health) care, and community care. A mobile robot streams a doctor’s face and voice from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
And a Xenex robot uses ultraviolet light to kill up to 70% of bacteria in hospital rooms in about 12 minutes, reducing the incidence of hospital acquired infections (HAI). It’s billed as “the world’s only Full Spectrum UV Germ-Zapping Robot.”
We’ve been worried about the potential of machines to destroy us since at least 1872, when Samuel Butler published Erewhon; or, Over the Range. Wrote Butler, nearly 150 years ago:
There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A jellyfish has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organized machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time.
I’ll take lukewarm comfort in its statement that the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society “will work to advance public understanding of artificial intelligence technologies (AI) and formulate best practices on the challenges and opportunities within the field.”
The incalculable business opportunity before them may indeed have been the ultimate motivator driving the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence’s founders — they want to set the tone rather than allow government to step in on behalf of fearful constituents.
And it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. So I won’t say there will never be a Skynet-driven “rise of the machines.”
But the real threats are less dramatic.
It’s the economic displacement.
It’s the possibility that “a machine-learning system designed to identify disease that is fed biased data might discriminate against certain people,” as Will Knight notes.
These are legitimate, real-world concerns.
Old Things New
It seems appropriate, in the context of today’s subject matter, to mention the HAL 9000, the AI that drives a compelling astronaut-computer conflict in Stanley Kubrick’s awesome, epoch-spanning 1968 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily