Artificial Intelligence

PersonaSynthetics: Sally
PersonaSynthetics: Sally

If you’ve been watching anything on Channel 4 recently you’ll have seen a trailer for PersonaSynthetics – advertising the latest home must-have gadget.  The ad itself is slightly creepy, despite the smiling family images, and the website supports this sterile AI view to an extent that some people have expressed concern over a genuine product being available.  It’s a fantastic ad campaign for their new series Humans, which in itself looks like it’d be worth a watch (there’s a nice trailer on the website), but it has raised again the issues around artificial intelligence, and how far should it go.

This is of particular interest to me as I am starting a new project in machine learning and, while my work isn’t going to lead to a home based automaton, there are some interesting questions to be considered in this area to ensure that we don’t end up making ourselves obsolete as a species.

On my drive home on Sunday night, I caught a repeat of an episode of Radio 4’s In Business program on Thinking Machines (available on iPlayer Radio).  Having heard a trail for the episode an hour earlier I was really looking forward to this and I was a little disappointed.  While the program hinted and what was behind machine intelligence and deep learning, it barely scratched the surface, which was a shame considering some of the contributors.

There were however some really interesting points regarding IBM’s Watson and its use in industry: applying deep learning to diverse applications and particularly medicine where the literature is too vast for an individual to keep on top of their own specialism let alone overlapping areas.  The Watson brain could digest and present relevant content at a per patient level, noting connections between symptoms that may have been missed.  All very fascinating and empowering right?

Earlier this year, many prominent scientists and interested parties signed an open letter to restrict the development of AI such that it would benefit mankind and that AI must always be answerable to mankind and never allowed to develop itself.  The media coverage of this has, predictably, conjured scare stories of the likes of SkyNet and I, Robot with stark polarisation, leading to fear among those who don’t really know what it’s all about, and the exact fear that the Channel4 show is aimed at.  (I presume that the same people objecting to machine intelligence would have no problem being in a plane flown on autopilot…)

The founder of IBM Thomas Watson said (and this was quoted in the Radio4 show):

Our machines should be nothing more than tools for extending the powers of the human beings who use them

I think this is where the confusion and fear lies – we are worrying about machines built to act on self-determined conclusions rather than presenting information for a (human) user to make the action.

The amount of information available to us is increasing exponentially – we need the focused assistance of machine intelligence to spot the patterns and trends to progress as a species.

Maybe we’ll get to a point were we give machines their own rights, but we are a long way from synthetic self awareness.  Possibly time to reread Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Blade Runner (Director’s cut obviously) if you prefer…

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.