Why We Need to Stop Singing the Artificial Intelligence Blues

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It started with Alex Garland’s film, Ex Machina. That’s when I noticed it — the tendency that exists right now in the media to predict gloom and doom for artificial intelligence (AI).

Consider Garland’s film. It’s engaging yet, like many of the stories being told right now about the future of AI, paints a somewhat bleak picture. The film’s “mad scientist,” Nathan (updated to be a brilliant but arrogant programmer), creates a sentient AI prototype and then iterates on it. Ava is his latest version.

Like all of her prototype predecessors, Ava has been “taught” by the glut of human behavioral data Nathan’s amassed from users online. It’s this data that informs her tendencies to be manipulative and self-serving as she strives to obtain her freedom. The message of Garland’s film is clear: tomorrow’s AI robots will do whatever it takes to get what they want.

Okay. You may think, well that’s the kind of story that sells movie tickets. True, but then Rise of the Machines article appeared in my newsfeed. Bookending a compelling description of the state of machine learning and deep learning was that same sense of gloom and doom.

The article references futurist Elon Musk, who equates our pursuit of AI with “summoning the devil,” and renowned British philosopher Nick Bostrom, who counts AI as a human threat equivalent to giant asteroid strikes and nuclear war. And it wouldn’t be AI from an economic perspective if the author didn’t then take the time to inform us how AI firms like Narrative Science (report writing) and Kensho (financial quant work) are eliminating jobs once considered safe from automation.

Next, sitting in my podcast feed was Planet Money’s story on Humans vs. Robots. Pitting humans against AI machines, the shows hosts reveal that we come out ahead when it comes to folding laundry, but are easily matched (or surpassed) when it comes to diagnosing psychological disorders or writing news reports.

After that was the Pew Research Center’s latest report on AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs where some of these themes reappeared – automation has impacted blue-collar jobs and “the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.” Oh, and as this study and others make clear, not only are our schools failing to provide the kind of preparation today’s learners need, even those that are won’t save us from what AI will do to job security.

Enough! What are the other implications for AI, the ones that can inspire us and transform how we think and act?

I’d argue that there are at least three transformative possibilities for AI and that these possibilities have the potential to take us to a whole different level of operating in the world. They include (1) reshaping how we’ll learn; (2) rethinking notions of intelligence; and (3) reinventing what it means to be human.

What impact will AI have on how we’ll learn? After chess grand master Gary Kasparov lost to IBM’s Deep Blue, he began to realize that if he’d had access to the historical database of chess moves that Deep Blue had, he could have performed a whole lot better. That led to what’s become freestyle chess matches where players – frequently referred to as centaurs — “listen to the moves whispered by the AI” but then decide when they’ll override them. “Today the best chess player alive is a centaur: Intagrand, a team of humans and several different chess programs.

In this case, AI hasn’t eliminated or even decreased human performance. It’s augmented it. If that’s what AI augmentation can do for chess players, then what about the rest of us? When it comes to resources for learning, it takes the notion of abundance to a whole different level. It takes it to a place of what I’d like to call intelligent abundance, that is, an extensive set of resources that are organized, sense made, and then shared with learners when they most want and need them.

What impact will AI have on how we’ll think about intelligence? We define intelligence as “the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations.” When it comes to AI, that definition often applies. For example, where we once ascribed intelligence to the concept of a driverless car or a machine that could beat a chess master, once those events took place, we began to view those achievements as mechanical “and hardly worth the label of intelligence.

AI’s accomplishments keep causing us to rethink what it means to be intelligent versus smart. It’s also gotten us to think about the advantages of nonhuman intelligence when it comes to rethinking everything from food preparation to fashion innovations to financial assets. If a machine can learn and then apply that learning to new situations with greater and greater success over time, then how is that kind of intelligence distinct from our own? What makes human intelligence, well, human?

What impact will AI have on what it means to be human? Finally, one of the most interesting aspects of AI is that it has the potential to transform how we think about ourselves as human beings. When Jane Goodall shared stories of her work with chimps, we learned how she began to rethink what it was to be human in relation to what she was learning about apes. Their behaviors and traits – some extremely similar to those of our own – got her to help us rethink what we know about ourselves as a species.

What Goodall discovered, and what we are discovering and will continue to discover as we learn more and more about AI, is that we may be “forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans.” As the delta between our own and AI robot’s intelligence decreases, we have an opportunity to gain greater clarity on what it means to be a human being. While we may undergo an identity crisis, we may also experience a welcome reimagining of who we are in the world.

So let’s get beyond the gloom and doom. Let’s stop singing the blues. Instead, let’s make room for all the possibilities for AI, especially when it comes to learning and rethinking what work and life may look like.

Tell me, what possibilities do you see for AI?

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