We have all heard about the new developments in artificial intelligence (AI), where intelligent machines approach the mysterious singularity that represents either the end of mankind or the beginning of a new kind of mankind. And although almost everyone has an opinion, and most likely a fear of AI, not very many people really understand what AI is, and more importantly what it is not.
We got our first notions of intelligent machines back in the 1800s when craftsmen built programmable automatons that mimicked writing letters, playing chess, and playing musical instruments. These were crude by today’s standards, music box like mechanical novelties, but to people who had never seen, nor considered such wondrous things, they were immediately given magical powers by the imaginations of the observers, if not the builders.
Intelligent machines have run through our science-fiction literature from the days of HG Wells, through Isaac Asimov, and up to modern-day authors like David Brin, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Gene Roddenberry. The cinema is equally to blame for the fear-induced notions about AI. The first movies about AI’s threat and danger came out in the mid-1950s and there has been a new one every other year or so up until the last couple of years when there has been one or two year. They all tell the same story about someone typically a scientist or engineer building a wondrous machine that they lose control of and due to its imperfections or its superiority becomes infuriated, inpatient, pissy with its developers and destroys them all, or at least tries to.
Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself - Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1932
However, as clever as AI devices may appear they really are nothing more than software-based windup toys with specific albeit adaptive functionality. Kathleen Maher commenting to me one day while I was being frustrated on the phone with some (alleged) service, “don’t be so inpatient, it’s only a robot that’s all it does how to do.” The point was well made and somewhat of a revelation for me. Extending it to the miraculous AI systems that currently astound us, it’s easy to see that an autonomous driving car, can only drive the car. It can’t make coffee, it can’t have a genuinely intelligent conversation, it can’t opine on our political situation or my lack of color fashion, it can only drive a car; cleverly, adeptly, and only.
AI is a subset of machine learning which is subset of the now popular deep learning, which is a subset of data analysis and reduction. It all starts with evaluating massive amounts of data, and classifying that data into certain categories and characteristics. The concept of such classifications and subsequent lookup was introduced in the 1960s in the form of physician assistants in evaluating and diagnosing common ailments. At that point in time there was a concern about in inadequate number of doctors being available to tend to the burgeoning growth in population particularly in what we now patronizingly call Third World countries. The program was remarkably successful because it turns out that a fever is a fever is a measure of illness, a runny nose is usually due to a cold, the loss of blood is probably due to a wound.
Today we live with AI in many in-stances that most of us aren’t even aware of. The biggest gains in AI over the past few years have been in speaker independent natural language recognition. I am using such technology right now to write this editorial. Every time someone says Hello Google, asks Siri a question, or tells Alexa to turn on the lights they are dealing with AI. When you do a web search cloud-based computers learn about your preferences, how long you have dwelled on a page, and then bring similar items to your attention on your next search. It’s not magic, it’s just AI and that’s all it knows how to do.
AI is and will help us. It won’t replace us. It will replace some of us who are being treated like robots to do robotic jobs; and for those situations we should be replaced and learn how to use our natural and unique abilities of imagination and critical thinking. AI may displace a few people, just as manufacturing robots have displaced people. That is a good thing and what society has to do is recognize that and establish retraining programs that will extract people from meaningless work. AI can be used in the instruction process.