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White House Prepares for Rise of the Machines

The Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society used a panel discussion at the White House Frontiers Conference to once again try to ease fears of a coming robot revolution.


“Artificial” is a word like so many others — “insular,” “detached,” “craven,” “swamp” — that describe Washington, D.C.

At the same time, “intelligence” — though it’s used to title multiple federal agencies — is not a word most Americans would associate with inside-the-Beltway types.

Indeed, one had to decamp to Pittsburgh — home of Carnegie Mellon University — or tune in online for the White House Frontiers Conference, which included a “track” devoted to artificial intelligence (rimshot!) and related technologies machine learning, automation, and robotics.

The gathering in Pittsburgh was a sort of valedictory, complete with the Orwellian overtones so often associated with Silicon Valley and what it purports to represent about our present and future:

Under President Obama’s leadership, America continues to be the world’s most innovative country, with the greatest potential to develop the industries of the future and harness science and technology to help address important challenges. Over the past eight years, President Obama has relentlessly focused on building U.S. capacity in science and technology.

Of course, it’s all about Dear Leader.

And yet there were discussions of some substance at the one-day gathering.

At the same time, “intelligence” — though it’s used to title multiple federal agencies — is not a word most Americans would associate with inside-the-Beltway types.

The Frontiers Conference actually covered much more ground than AI and its enabling tech. Among these were health care and the “Precision Medicine Initiative,” community use of Big Data, climate change solutions, clean energy, and space exploration.

(Regarding the latter, we’re reminded of the Kennedyesque 2015 State of the Union challenge for Americans to voyage “out into the solar system, not just to visit, but to stay,” and a more recent declaration that we should go to Mars within the next quarter-century, as a renewed cult of personality propels 44 into private life.)

The White House also announced more than $300 million in new federal spending, with funds earmarked for the National Institutes of Health and its efforts to tackle neurodegenerative diseases, for cities to use technology and data to improve traffic flow, for the U.S. Department of Justice to collect and utilize crime data, and for investments in small-satellite technology to increase internet access, among other initiatives.

Of particular interest, though is the outgoing administration’s report on the future of AI and the societal opportunities and challenges it presents, which was augmented by an industry panel discussion on best practices for development and deployment of the technology.

The White House report, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence, leads with a brief history, definition, and explanation of the current state of AI.

It segues into a comparison of AI’s potential to the impact of mobile computing, noting the possibility it could “solve some of the world’s greatest challenges and inefficiencies.”

AI has broad applications: healthcare, transportation, the environment, criminal justice, economic inclusion. It might even make government work better for people.

Of course, where the executive branch of the government is speaking, there shall be discussion of regulation. As AI is and will be a critical component of flying and driving, there will be standardization and enforcement. Risk assessment and response will be an entertaining process, if nothing else.

At the end of the day, the White House’s team of experts believes that “in the long run” automated vehicles “will likely save many lives by reducing driver error and increasing personal mobility,” while drones “will offer many economic benefits.”

That’s all in the enormously challenging context of cybersecurity.

AI has broad applications: healthcare, transportation, the environment, criminal justice, economic inclusion. It might even make government work better for people.

As noted in the cover letter accompanying the report: “In the coming months, the administration will release a follow-on report exploring in greater depth the effect of AI-driven automation on jobs and the economy.”

As we noted in the September 30, 2016, Wall Street Daily, the real threat is not an army of AI robots overwhelming us with violent force and conquering first America and then Earth.

There is, of course, a more subtle existential threat, in the sense that AI-enabled robots raise questions about what it means to be human.

But it’s the fact that ever-smarter machines will be able to do more and more useful things. It’s this economic utility that threatens us.

The futurist Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google and an AI robotics professional and advocate, is actually pretty sanguine about human-machine relations at the start of the Industrial Revolution:

You could point at almost every job and it seemed only a matter of time before those jobs were automated and eliminated. Indeed, that happened. Those jobs were automated and went away. Yet somehow, employment went up… New industries emerged making and servicing these machines.

He’s neither ignorant of nor insensitive to the changes confronting humans: “We are destroying jobs at the bottom-of-the-scale ladder. We add new jobs at the top-of-the-scale ladder. The scale ladder moves up. In order to keep up with that rising scale ladder, we need to make people more skilled.”

And yet history has plenty of evidence for optimism: “We’re constantly creating and inventing new jobs and things to do.”

The AI industry panel discussion included representatives from Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and IBM, four of the five founding members of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society.

There is, of course, a more subtle existential threat, in the sense that AI-enabled robots raise questions about what it means to be human.

It was their task to address the more esoteric questions also touched upon by the White House report: “concerns about unintended consequences of widespread adoption,” “concerns about safety” raised by “use of AI to control physical-world equipment,” and ethics.

Yann LeCun, an AI researcher at Facebook, summed up the problem ably: It’s about teaching machines common sense. It’s not a simple problem.

“We don’t know how to do that with machines, how to teach them to learn by observing the world,” said LeCun. “This is one mountain we need to climb, but we don’t know how many mountains are behind it.”

And as Guruduth Banavar of IBM put it, “In environments where machines and humans are interacting, there’s got to be an element of trust. That trust building will take time.”

You can watch the archived recording of the panel discussion here. Scroll down to “Live Stream” and fast-forward to about the 39-minute mark. It’s a little less than an hour long and is a pretty fascinating way to learn about AI.


Upticks, Downticks

Downtick The Russell 2000 posted another weekly decline, shedding 1.9% during the five trading sessions ended Friday, October 14, and is now down 3.1% thus far in the fourth quarter. The S&P 500 slipped to a three-month intraday low on Thursday, October 14, but recovered some ground to close the week down 1%.

Uptick The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index — the VIX, commonly known as the “fear gauge” — spiked from a close of 13.38 on Monday, October 10, to an intraday high of 17.95 on Thursday, October 13. That’s an increase of 34%.

Downtick The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) revealed that monthly job openings fell to 5.4 million on the last business day of August, down from 5.9 million on the last day of July. The end-of-August figure also represents an eight-month low.

Uptick The Labor Department also reported an advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims for unemployment insurance of 246,000 for the week ended October 8, 2016, the lowest figure since November 3, 1973.

Downtick China’s General Administration of Customs reported that exports declined by an annualized rate of 5.6% in renminbi terms in September, while imports were down to 2.2%, from 10.8% in August. Coupled with weak South Korean trade data, economists are growing more concerned about the strength of global demand.

Uptick “Hubble Reveals Observable Universe Contains 10 Times More Galaxies Than Previously Thought”

Smart Investing,

David Dittman
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily

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