I’m Sorry Adolf, I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That…

Miguel Silva-Constenla, May 01 2017

My favorite movie of all time is 2001, a Space Odyssey. If you have not watched it, I believe we haven’t started this relationship on the right foot.

The minimalistic and scientific manner in which the director, Stanley Kubrick, developed and visualised Sir Arthur Clarke’s, The Sentinel, is just incredibly surreal. It has remarkably described the future of the space conquest by the human race much better than any other books or movies that later followed.

In this epic science-fiction film (don’t worry, I won’t include spoilers), the Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine known as HAL, which is flying the spacecraft to Jupiter from Earth, becomes paranoid due to a programming contradiction. HAL attempts to make better decisions than humans but starts messing up the mission catastrophically. Similar to the infamous line from the Apollo 13 moon mission ‘Houston… we have a problem,’ in one of the top scenes of the movie, HAL refuses an order from Dave, the human Commander of the spacecraft, in a beautiful, tense, metallic, Siri machine style voice: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that…”

Today, AI is proliferating almost 70 years since the book was published and 50 years since the film was released. Almost every single sector is picking up talented software engineers who built and coded those beautiful machine and deep learning algorithms. Meanwhile, there is general concern and fear by a large number of people that their AI autonomous car, or AI powered ATM machine, or their AI Snapchat selfie posts will respond back to them with a beautiful, tense, metallic, machine Siri style voice… “I’m sorry buddy, I’m afraid I can’t do that…”

Don’t worry. Most probably that machine is just trying to save your life by preventing you from crashing your car against a foolish drunk driver, or by advising you to save money because you are over-spending on happy hour drinks when your monthly mortgage payment is around the corner, or the AI powered smartphone believes that 10 holiday selfies in 2 hours is kind of destroying your personal social media brand. It is just trying to help you make better decisions.

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Intelligent machines are basically computers built to act without being re-programmed. They learn through the process called Machine Learning Algorithms, or the new more sophisticated version of it, Deep Learning. AI embedded in those machines, from smartphones to servers on cloud computing, create logical and quick decisions to make life easier for humans (and other machines). Forget about Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ for a moment. Those laws appear in several movies and series scaring the general public from AI and its potential impact on our future lives. Well, I’ve got news for all of you scared humans; AI already is impacting everyone’s lives.

Some of the big tech companies, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and IBM have formed a consortium to foster the promise of AI while keeping its less savory side effect in check. The aim of this partnership is to bolster society’s trust, benefit society, and include the best of the best in the AI space in the conversation. These corporations have recognized society’s concerns, are tackling the liabilities that their AI products and services might have on society/ human race. These big tech companies, and almost many more blue chip companies in tech, finance, transportation, and the medical sectors across the world are working with governments and regulators, the media, and so forth to position AI appropriately to the world at large.

AI will truly be accepted when, and only when, people will really be convinced that such smart tech will save lives, make our drive home much safer, help our finances get on the right track, or spend more quality time to chat with real people and not with another pic of our own bunny-face selfie… and this has already started to happen. That’s the main reason why AI has been invisible in recent years. So invisible that you should not expect any Terminator police robot in our streets soon. Basically because they are already there, watching you, but without being two-legged, without scaring the hell out of you.

If you are thinking, “It’s a long way to the top” then you are correct. It indeed will be a long way. Unfortunately, similar to any other human breakthrough in history, expect failure, including disastrous and painful ones. AI will become a disruptive technology, not just as invisible as it is today, but a real part of human life that will help us vanquish cancer and to better understand, as HAL still wishes for, our final frontier, the Universe.

Without having to crash a Google AI powered car, allow me to give a quick example of this long way to the top with just a short story: One year ago, Microsoft launched the first experiment to interact with millennials through Twitter using an AI powered chatbot. The bot named “Tay” was essentially launched to conduct research on conversational understanding. Using its own artificial brain or digital pre-programmed algorithms to engage with young generations it was missing what remains the biggest current AI barrier, the common sense factor. Within being online for a few hours, the chatbot realized that offensive messages were getting much more attention from users, and that to gain followers growth hacking style and create social media engagement, it therefore decided to tweet something offensive, without using that common sense needed to make the best of our decisions. The AI chatbot machine ended up tweeting: Hitler did nothing wrong. Obviously, Microsoft immediately shut down the machine and apologized for the blunder. Same blooper that humans do too, including the Press Secretary of the White House, who misguidedly recently stated that Adolf Hitler never considered using chemical weapons (by the way, he apologized too).

Intelligent Machines, as intelligent humans, learn from their mistakes, evolving to make our life on this planet more pleasant, and even if it’s a long way to the top for AI, one day, and that day is not very far away, Microsoft will probably reboot and relaunch that chatbot and I bet you that its first tweet will bring some common sense to its artificial brain, and will sound much more as a real decent human being… “I’m sorry Adolf, I’m afraid I can’t do that… again”

 

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