AI – Nirvana or Apocalypse?

Smells like tech spirit – Artificial Intelligence may be on its way to becoming the buzziest buzz-term in the buzzword laden history of the buzz-o-sphere.  No prior trend has engendered the societal debate that AI has sparked.  Scientists, billionaires, politicians, poets, priests, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers have all gotten into the game.  Ok, the candlestick maker reference was hogwash but give that industry time … I am sure something will come up.  Everybody has an opinion and the opinions are “all over the map”.  Artificial intelligence will either be the recreation of Eden on Earth (without the troublesome snakes and apples) or the kind of zombie apocalypse that gives zombies nightmares.  The goal of the re-launched Smart Ubiquity blog is to examine the technical, economic, industrial, governmental and societal impacts of AI.

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”   Concerns about computers getting too big for their britches go back a long way.  Generation after generation has had their fears of computer overlords generally mucking things up.  My generation first learned the perils of artificial intelligence from HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame.  Thirty three years later everybody laughed when 2001 came and went without any psychotic computers in evidence.  But here we are 16 years later and there are some very serious people with some very serious concerns.  Why did concerns about AI go from the realm of entertainment to a serious debate about the end of mankind?

The winter of their discontent.  AI has gone through a series of boom and bust cycles over the decades from the hype of the 1970s and 80s to the so-called AI winter from about 1990 through 2011.  In some ways the public’s fascination with AI elevated the highs and made the lows all that much lower.  In 1981 Japan’s MITI funded the Fifth Generation Computer Systems project with $850M.  The ambitious program would build a new generation of computers designed for AI along with the AI software needed to make the dream come true.  An impressive list of goals was drawn up.  Ten years later the goals had not been met.  Twenty, even thirty years later many of the goals from 1981 were still elusive.  Then, in 2011, came one of those bizarre occurrences that sort of change everything.

Your answer must be in the form of a question.  In January 2011 IBM’s AI platform, named Watson, played Jeopardy! against the two best human Jeopardy! players in history and beat them soundly.  The AI winter was over.  In reality, AI research had been going on at IBM and elsewhere during the so-called AI winter.  The research was often called something other than AI during the AI winter because of the stigma AI had developed.  However, it was AI.  The Watson Jeopardy! match put AI back in the public’s imagination and it’s been “off to the races” ever since.

The Last Question.  Google followed IBM with a more impressive AI demonstration.  In 2016, using its Deep Mind AI platform, Google defeated the reigning human Go master.  Go is a 3,000 year old Chinese board game that has been notoriously hard for AI platforms to successfully play due to the mind-boggling number of possible moves.  These advances, and many more, explain why the debate over AI and the future of mankind has reached such a fever pitch.  AI is finally real.

Future columns will discuss the nature and timing of AI’s progress but it seems that Isaac Asimov’s Multivax and The Terminator’s Skynet are both reasonable proxies for the future of AI and human civilization.  One is nirvana and the other an apocalypse.  But, which one will it be?

 

Donald J. Rippert

Author’s note:  I am an employee of the IBM Company.  However, on this blog I write as an individual rather than a representative of my employer.  All opinions are my own and do not necessarily (or even probably) represent the position of the IBM Company.

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