The boring and amazing truth behind Artificial Intelligence
Fear and admiration for AI
Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by Artificial Intelligence. I read almost all novels from my favorite author of all times, Isaac Asimov who came up with the three laws of robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In his science fiction universe, these three laws were implanted into each "positronic brain" of all robots so that we humans had nothing to fear from them. When you come to think about it, we fear what we don't know and Hollywood hardwired us to fear and respect AI. I remember as a kid having nightmares after the infamous nuclear bomb scene in Terminator 2.
It is 2018, where are all the robots?
I have to admit I am a little disappointed as I have yet to walk past a sentient robot, capable of dreaming, revolting against human kind and taking over the world.
My brother is a very smart engineer who has worked for some of the largest technology companies in the world and a couple of years ago, during a family dinner he casually mentioned he was working on Artificial Intelligence! More precisely, he was designing games and working on the AI engine behind one of them. I couldn't believe my brother was working on AI. I mean, I always knew he was intelligent, but I couldn't exactly picture him as the founder of Skynet. I needed to know in detail what is it exactly he was doing, but he was quite surprised about my question, since I was really not a big deal for him.
Tearing down the myth
What followed, was one of the most eye opening discussions I've had in my adult life. He, being an engineer, explained to me in plain and simple terms what is it exactly that he was doing. There is a lot of theory behind game designing, but we generally consider a game to be fun if it reaches and maintains a delicate balance between being difficult enough so that it pushes us to get better at it, but no so difficult as to frustrate us. One of the strategies behind this is to use AI to automatically adapt the difficulty level to the player, to deliver a tailored made experience... In reality what my brother was doing was nothing more than a bunch of calculations. The way I saw it, there was nothing inherently intelligent about it... I was quite disappointed at AI.
The AI effect
American author Pamela McCorduck was the first to coin the term "the AI effect". According to her, every time somebody figures out how to make a computer do something (do facial recognition, play chess, do voice recognition, etc), there will be a chorus of people claiming that is not "real thinking" and that it is just a bunch of computations.
According to "the AI effect", as soon as AI successfully solves a problem, it stops being magical and the problem is therefore no longer a part of AI...
This is probably due to the fact that we as humans need to think there is something that makes us inherently special and unique in the universe and that there is a field or a particular skill that "truly" represents intelligence where robots will never be able to out perform us.
The Turing test
Alan Turing is considered the father of computing. He developed in 1950 the Turing test. According to him, a machine would be considered "truly intelligent" if it could discuss with a human and trick him into thinking there was a real human behind it. At the time, Natural Language Processing was a field where little progress had been made and human conversations were regarded as the pinnacle of complexity. However, in 2014 there was a first piece of software that successfully passed the test. Therefore we no longer consider that achievement as "true AI" and we still dream of one day meeting sentient robots that could outsmart us.
The ultimate goal behind AI is to increase profits
You see, the reason there are no sentient robots actively working to kill us all is because there are no economical reasons for this. Despite what many people would think, our world is currently more peaceful now than before.
We live in a capitalist world and the largest investments in AI come from the private sector, whose ultimate goal is to increase profit for its shareholders. Google, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM are the most important players in AI and the biggest advances in the field are for applications that make economic sense for these companies.
The software my brother was writing was designed to improve user experience and ultimately, to allow a gaming company to sell more.
Take Machine Learning for instance, the state of the art domain of Artificial Intelligence and see some of the real life applications behind it.
AI is already here and you are using it every day
We are already using artificial intelligence every day without even noticing it. Our iPhones recognise our faces so that they unlock even faster (and sell more). Every time we visit amazon's website, it uses an AI engine called DSSTNE to provide product recommendations and push us to buy more. Netflix learns from our interests in order to provide us a better choice of movies and convince us to keep paying our subscription... Before we even realise it, it is already 3am and we need to immediately go to bed cause we have to work the next day...
All these technologies were pretty hard to develop and some very smart engineers wrote these algorithms, whose ultimate goal was to make better products, sell more, reduce costs and increase profits for their shareholders.
There are some potentially scary applications of AI as well...
I am not saying that fears of Artificial Intelligence are unfounded. There are still some real and serious threats that could come from the military, the weapon industry or from rogue and authoritarian governments. There is a video that went viral not so long ago, warning of the real dangers of using AI to design autonomous weapons. The video was simply done to raise awareness on this issue... We thank God this is not a reality yet!
The real masterminds behind AI
For the time being, ff you come to think about it, the real masters minds pushing the boundaries of AI are the CEOs of Google, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM and for the moment, annihilating the human race is just not part of the business plan for their next financial quarter...
Although the invisible hand of capitalism is driving AI investments and this is currently having a real impact on jobs, we live in a very interesting point of time, where AI is also being used to reduce traffic accidents, more accurately identify and treat diseases and even to analyse our Genome.
Applications of AI are endless and it is up to us as human beings to make the best out of it.
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