There’s always a lot of debate about artificial intelligence (AI). The far end of it is the Skynet scenario, where people worry that computers will get too smart, become self-aware, realize that they don’t need to listen to us, and take over. With their cold logic, lack of empathy, and total lack of vulnerability, they will be able to overthrow the era of weak and puny man. It’s a gripping idea, and a neat little way to talk about the hubris of creation, but the “worst-case” (and probably ridiculous, as we’ll discuss) scenario isn’t particularly helpful. It also has confused what we really mean when we talk about AI. Far from being a scary part of the future, AI is something we use every day, and it is just getting better. The future of AI is not Skynet, but Siri.
Siri and the Rise of the Machines
Cupertino’s Apple has long been fascinated with AI, as has everyone who ever designed a computer. You don’t need to be a bold futurist like Kurzweil to understand the concept of artificial intelligence. Indeed, AI is backed into literally everything a computer does. It might help to think of the “A” in “AI” not as artificial, but as algorithmic.
That is essentially what AI is- an algorithm that begins to understand behavior and process so that it can react to them. It’s basically what a child does as it begins to react to social cues and figure out the world around itself, except while that is a process that is barely understood, programming is really well understood, which is why the spark of true consciousness is probably not going to bloom.
These algorithms learn behavior and patterns. Here is the most simple one: Amazon. When you buy anything from Amazon, it shows you a list of things you might also like to buy. These suggestions are based on what other shoppers who bought your item also purchased, as well as your shopping habits. This is pretty simple, but it is literally the basis of artificial intelligence.
When You Use AI
You use AI on your smartphone or tablet every day, interacting through Siri on your Apple or through Google Now on your Galaxy. Google Now is leading the way, but Apple is trying to catch up, as demonstrated by their acquisition this week of Vocal IQ, a UK-based startup that specializes in creating intuitive and conversational AI platforms.
What these AI services are trying to do is to become your personal assistant. They won’t get you coffee (yet), but they can manage your life, from setting appointments to figuring out what you want to read in the morning. They will be able to understand your life, and, more importantly, anticipate your needs. That’s the heart of helpful AI. It isn’t just asking Siri what the cheapest flight to Seattle is, it is Siri understanding that you are going to need to know that.
Is That Scary?
So, how would Siri understand that you need to know the cheapest flight to Seattle? Well, Siri, or Google Now, or any of the other virtual personal assistants, will be able to comb through your email or texts looking for keywords and dates. They’ll know what is on your calendar. They’ll eventually know that it is almost March, and every March you go see your brother in Seattle. Usually the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. It’s a tradition. Your personal assistant understands this, and knows when the NCAA’s are coming up, and finds the best flights, and asks if you want to book it.
Now, for some people this is scary. It is a computer algorithm flipping through your life and learning everything about you. Those people have a point, of course, because we don’t know what else they are going to do with that information. However, that’s where sci-fi splits from the regulatory reality. They won’t use this information to kill us. The scary part is to think that perhaps all this information can be farmed out to businesses who can then bombard us with ads (although some will find that convenient). We also don’t want all our information going into some kind of central government repository.
These are matters of regulation, though, and important ones. If we want the future of the internet to be something helpful, and not just another way to part us from our money, we need to demand regulations, either legislatively or just with our dollars- that is, don’t buy products from companies that think we are nothing more than data to be mined out to advertisers.
It isn’t a matter of machine uprising. We design these algorithms, and we can control them. To me, it is of dazzling excitement. If done right, it can change the way we interact with the world, saving us incredible amounts of time, and freeing us up to read more, to hike more, to hang out with loved ones on aching sunsets. That’s the most positive outcome of the information and AI revolutions, and it is more likely than robot apocalypses.