Artificial Intelligence is coming of age, slowly but surely

Your fortnightly guide to how cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence will shape lives and businesses

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Have you seen sci-fi movies like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a 2001 US science fiction drama directed by Steven Spielberg that portrays a childlike android programmed to love, or Bicentennial Man, which starred the late Robin Williams and was based on a 1976 novel by Isaac Asimov? Have you seen the movie Surrogates which starred Bruce Willis and portrayed a futuristic world where people live within the safety of their homes while their robotic surrogates carry on their daily chores?

If yes, you are also likely to believe that machines endowed with artificial intelligence (AI) can emulate, or even surpass, human intelligence. However, nothing can be further from the truth, say researchers. At least not till date.

“The frightening, futurist portrayals of artificial intelligence that dominate films and novels, and shape the popular imagination, are fictional… Unlike in the movies, there is no race of superhuman robots on the horizon or probably even possible,” insists a Stanford University-hosted report. Titled Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030, this year-long investigation is the first of a series of reports to be published at regular intervals as part of a 100-year study on AI. “While the rate of progress in AI has been patchy and unpredictable, there have been significant advances since the field’s inception 60 years ago… In reality, AI is already changing our daily lives, almost entirely in ways that improve human health, safety, and productivity,” the report added.

AI has undoubtedly risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the so-called AI winter—a period of time in the late 1970s and early 1980s when funding dwindled and research almost went underground. Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin and chair of the 17-member panel of international experts who wrote the Stanford report, says he and the panel believe that “specialized AI applications will become both increasingly common and more useful by 2030, improving our economy and quality of life... But this technology will also create profound challenges, affecting jobs and incomes and other issues that we should begin addressing now to ensure that the benefits of AI are broadly shared”.

"Unlike in the movies, there is no race of superhuman robots on the horizon or probably even possible."- Stanford report

The Stanford report traces its roots to a 2009 study that brought AI scientists in a process of introspection that became ongoing in 2014, when Eric and Mary Horvitz created the AI100 endowment through Stanford. It investigates eight domains (see more at the end of this article) of human activity in which AI technologies are beginning to affect urban life in ways that will become increasingly pervasive and profound by 2030.

Computer vision and AI planning, for example, drive the video games that are now a bigger entertainment industry than Hollywood, notes the report. Deep learning, a form of machine learning based on layered representations of variables referred to as neural networks, has made speech-understanding practical on our phones and in our kitchens, and its algorithms can be applied widely to an array of apps that rely on pattern recognition. Natural language processing, and knowledge representation and reasoning, according to the report, have enabled a machine to beat the Jeopardy champion and are bringing new power to Web searches.

While impressive, these technologies are highly tailored to particular tasks. Each application typically requires years of specialized research and careful, unique construction. In similarly targeted apps, substantial increases in the future uses of AI technologies including more self-driving cars, healthcare diagnostics and targeted treatments, and physical assistance for care of elders can be expected.

But what exactly is AI?

“Curiously, the lack of a precise, universally accepted definition of AI probably has helped the field to grow, blossom, and advance at an ever-accelerating pace,” says the Stanford report.

"Artificial intelligence is that activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment."- Nils J. Nilsson

According to the study panel, Nils J. Nilsson has provided a useful definition: “Artificial intelligence is that activity devoted to making machines intelligent, and intelligence is that quality that enables an entity to function appropriately and with foresight in its environment.” Nilsson is Kumagai professor of engineering (emeritus) in the department of computer science at Stanford University and one of the founding researchers in the discipline of AI. The late John McCarthy, an American computer and cognitive scientist who coined the term AI in 1955, defined it as “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”.

AI adopts an interdisciplinary approach. Other than computer science, AI also relies on subjects like math, psychology, linguistics, philosophy and neuroscience. Its growth has been triggered by the maturation of machine learning, stimulated in part by the rise of the digital economy, which both provides and leverages large amounts of data, according to the Stanford report. Other factors include the rise of cloud computing resources and consumer demand for widespread access to services such as speech recognition and navigation support.

“Machine learning has been propelled dramatically forward by impressive empirical successes of artificial neural networks, which can now be trained with huge data sets and large-scale computing. This approach has been come to be known as ‘deep learning’. The leap in the performance of information processing algorithms has been accompanied by significant progress in hardware technology for basic operations such as sensing, perception, and object recognition. New platforms and longer term, AI may be thought of as a radically different mechanism for wealth creation in which everyone should be entitled to a portion of the world’s AI-produced treasures,” says the report.

"Specialized AI applications will become both increasingly common and more useful by 2030, improving our economy and quality of life."- Peter Stone

AI experts predict that intelligent and semi-intelligent autonomous systems such as self-driving cars and autonomous drones “will march into our society” in the next two-three years, according to a 6 February briefing at the 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting.

To be sure, major research universities devote departments to AI studies, and technology companies already spend heavily to explore AI applications they regard as critical to their futures.

On 28 September, for instance, Google Inc.-owned DeepMind Technologies Ltd, Inc., Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. said they will create a non-profit organization that will work to advance public understanding of AI technologies and formulate best practices on the challenges and opportunities within the field. Academics, non-profits, and specialists in policy and ethics will be invited to join the board of the organization, named the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society (Partnership on AI).

The objective of the Partnership on AI is to address opportunities and challenges with AI technologies to benefit people and society. Besides conducting research, recommending best practices, and publishing research under an open licence in areas such as ethics, fairness and inclusivity; transparency, privacy and interoperability; collaboration between people and AI systems; and the trustworthiness, reliability and robustness of the technology, the organization’s founding members will each contribute financial and research resources to the partnership and will share leadership with independent third-parties, including academics, user group advocates, and industry domain experts.

On 29 September, Microsoft announced the formation of a new Microsoft AI and Research Group, bringing together over 5,000 computer scientists and engineers focused on the company’s AI product efforts. The new group will be led by computer vision expert Harry Shum, a 20-year Microsoft veteran whose career has spanned leadership roles across Microsoft Research and Bing engineering. Several of Microsoft’s engineering leaders and teams will join the newly formed group, including those from the Information Platform, Cortana and Bing, and Ambient Computing and Robotics units. Effectively, the Microsoft AI and Research Group will encompass AI product engineering, basic and applied research labs, and New Experiences and Technologies.

According to Satya Nadella, chief executive of Microsoft, this newly formed unit will help Microsoft focus “on empowering both people and organizations, by democratizing access to intelligence to help solve our most pressing challenges”, for which “we are infusing AI into everything we deliver across our computing platforms and experiences”.

Microsoft is adopting a four-pronged approach to its initiative to “democratize” AI. The first involves harnessing AI to fundamentally change human and computer interaction through agents such as Microsoft’s digital personal assistant Cortana. The second is about infusing every app—from the photo app on people’s phones to Skype and Office 365—with intelligence.

The third focuses on making these intelligent capabilities that are infused in Microsoft’s apps—cognitive capabilities such as vision and speech, and machine analytics—available to every app developer in the world. The fourth strategy revolves around building the world’s most powerful AI supercomputer with Azure and making it available to anyone, to enable people and organizations to harness its power.

Facebook AI Research, according to a November 2015 note by Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer at the social network firm, has been conducting ambitious research in areas like image recognition and natural language understanding with developments in a new technology called Memory Networks that add a type of short-term memory to the convolutional neural networks that power the deep-learning systems, allowing those systems to understand language more like a human would.

In March, DeepMind’s computer programme, AlphaGo, beat Go champion Lee Seedol once again, triggering a deep-seated fear about the prowess of AI-driven bots. On the flip side, Microsoft’s AI chatbot “Tay” turned racist and sexist within 24 hours, forcing the company to issue an apology and take Tay offline. Microsoft, though, does have a chatbot called XiaoIce in China, which it claims is being used by about 40 million people.

On 6 October, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd announced it has agreed to acquire Viv Labs Inc., which has developed an AI platform that gives third-party developers the power to use and build conversational assistants and integrate a natural language-based interface into renowned apps and services. The deal underscores the company’s penchant for virtual personal assistants and is part of its broader vision to deliver an AI-based open ecosystem across all its devices and services.

Will AI machines surpass us?

Such developments do give the impression that machines will soon become more intelligent than us. But we are not beaten yet—human skills are still superior in some areas, concludes a recent study by Danish physicist Jacob Sherson, published in science journal Nature. Sherson and his research group at Aarhus University, according to a 13 April statement, have identified one of the abilities that still makes humans unique compared to a computer’s enormous processing power—our skill in approaching problems heuristically and solving them intuitively.

Technology luminaries such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, even physicist Stephen Hawking, have expressed fear that robots with AI could rule mankind. But there are those who believe that AI machines can be controlled. Marvin Lee Minsky, who died in January, was an American cognitive scientist in the field of AI and co-founder of MIT’s AI laboratory. A champion of AI, he did believe that some computers would eventually become more intelligent than most human beings, but hoped that researchers would make such computers benevolent to mankind.

On the other hand, Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil, an American author, computer scientist, inventor and futurist, in his 2006 book The Singularity is Near, predicted, among many other things, that AI will surpass humans, the smartest and most capable life forms on the planet. By 2099, he forecast that machines would have attained equal legal status with humans. However, Ray has sought to allay such fears that smart machines will dominate humans by pointing out that we can deploy strategies to keep emerging technologies like AI safe, and underscoring the existence of ethical guidelines like Isaac Asimov’s three laws for robots, which can prevent “at least to some extent” smart machines from overpowering us (“Should we fear AI?”).

So will these intelligent machines rule over humans?

The answer to this question, however, is not easy because much will depend on how you approach, or address, the issue. The Stanford report concludes: “Over the next several years, AI research, systems development, and social and regulatory frameworks will shape how the benefits of AI are weighed against its costs and risks, and how broadly these benefits are spread.”

What the Stanford AI report says

Autonomous cars, trucks and, possibly, aerial delivery vehicles may alter how we commute, work and shop, and create new patterns of life and leisure in cities.

Home/service robots like robotic vacuum cleaners already in some homes and specialized robots will clean and provide security in living/work spaces. They will be equipped with sensors and remote controls.

Healthcare devices to monitor personal health and robot-assisted surgery are hints of things to come if AI is developed in ways that gain the trust of doctors, nurses, patients and regulators.

Interactive tutoring systems already help students learn languages, math and other skills. More is possible if technologies like natural language processing platforms develop to augment instruction by humans.

The conjunction of content creation tools, social networks and AI will lead to new ways to gather, organize and deliver media in engaging, personalized and interactive ways.

Investments in uplifting technologies like predictive models to prevent lead poisoning or improve food distribution could spread AI benefits to the underserved.

Cameras, drones and software to analyse crime patterns should use AI in ways that reduce human bias and enhance safety without loss of liberty or dignity.

Work should start now on how to help people adapt as the economy undergoes rapid changes as many existing jobs are lost and new ones are created.

Source: Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030