World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

20-23 January 2016 Davos-Klosters, Switzerland

AI Reality Check: Don’t Download Your Brain Just Yet

The arrival of supercomputers that can play poker (bluffing included), velvet-voiced digital personal assistants that answer questions and give directions, driverless cars and even robot sex partners has stirred excitement about artificial intelligence (AI). Add to the hype recent warnings from such science and technology icons as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk of the consequences of giving machines moral responsibilities and the danger that man-made automatons could go out of control and turn on their creators. Science fiction contains many macabre predictions – could a person’s knowledge, memory and personality be downloaded, his very being preserved in a system of circuits?

Let’s not rush too far ahead of reality. It is true that 2015 was a big year for AI. For the first time, drivers could take their hands of the steering wheel and have a computer do the work. Major progress was made in getting machines to do the boring parts of white-collar work such as searching legal documents, reading facial expressions and emotions, and even negotiating a deal with other machines. Last year, it could be argued, AI went from curiosity to conventional – or at least something more visible in daily life.

“We are starting to see these technologies move out of the data centres and into the world,” Matthew Grob, Executive Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer at US wireless technologies company Qualcomm, said in a session on artificial intelligence. “AI is really going mainstream,” agreed Zhang Yaqin, President of Baidu, the Chinese search engine company.

AI has not taken over our lives. Some of the exciting products and services are not yet as intelligent as we may imagine. Apple’s Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface programme, or SIRI, which serves as a mobile personal assistant and knowledge curator, is a far cry from JARVIS, the seemingly omnipotent intelligent computer in the Iron-Man films. SIRI voices prepared answers to a prepared set of questions. “If SIRI really understood your questions and listened in on person-to-person conversations, then it could be the ideal personal assistant,” explained Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Autonomous cars undergoing trials may have been spotted on the streets of San Francisco but are not yet market-ready. A driver cannot leave everything to AI and still has to take over when the computer in a vehicle gets confused because of its inability to distinguish people in proximity from objects, or is in a situation where it has to deal with the unexpected and make a split-second decision that could entail an ethical choice. Government approval for driverless cars to be commercialized is still years away.

Robots may be common in modern factories and automatons that learn are becoming more sophisticated. But robots that can do something simple – pick up objects such as a drink or berries from a bush – are still not a reality. For computers, it turns out, “manipulation is a lot harder than driving a car down a freeway,” said Andrew Moore, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. “To be as dexterous as a human being, a robot has to have complex hands. It’s very expensive to develop that technology.”

While algorithms and hardware capability are improving rapidly, “we don’t have anything to worry about machines taking over in the near future,” Grob reckoned. Yet it is hard to overhype AI’s impact. “It will change our lives, mostly for the better,” Grob predicted. Concluded Russell: “Everything we have that is good in our lives is the result of our intelligence. So if AI can amplify our intelligence, then we could be talking about a golden age of humanity.”

As it happened Last update: 23 Jan 15:06 UTC

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