HAL, are you out there?

To read press releases issued recently by federal and provincial government operatives, Atlantic Canada is poised to become the next North American hotbed of ‘artificial intelligence’. But does the reality live up to the billing?

The answer is as complex as a coding exercise. The phrases that come to mind are ‘maybe’, ‘not yet’ and, quite possibly, ‘no’. That’s a subtle ternary calculation that only human brains can, thus far, fathom (some more effectively than others, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s morning tweets on just about anything and everything).

Still, according to a recent piece in the Memorial University Gazette of St. John’s, NF/LA, Ottawa and that province’s investments will enable the institution “to undertake a three-year research initiative focused on. . .systems (which) teaches AI systems how to make decisions based on past experience and deep neural networks focused on learning about large data sets by creating AI based on the human brain.”

Added Dr. David Churchill, assistant professor in the department of computer science at Memorial: “Artificial intelligence at its core is about developing computer technologies that make intelligent decisions – to help us solve problems not only in academia, but in many industrial sectors as well. AI is predicted to become one of the largest economic sectors in the world, and I believe that establishing a state-of-the-art AI research lab at Memorial University will help promote innovation, motivate future students, and have long-term benefits for our province.”
That’s fair enough. I’m all for the type of innovation that will wean this region from the debilitating and downward spiral of our expectations. At the same time, though, the thoughfully sceptical among us must recognize that artificial intelligence is a denominator, not a numerator. And if you, dear reader, do not understand my point, then you have made mine.

The bottom number in a fraction (the denominator) will grow as AI technology receives increasingly more money). The top number (the numenator) must increase in tandem to extract maximum economic benefits from the largest number of people possible (experts who will apply their skills in this region to solve, in their own ways, innovation gaps, economic adversity and, ultimately, social dislocation).

Look at it this way: For every ten dollars invested in any form of AI innovation, you will need an equivalent number of professionals operating at top efficiency to produce one new job. In that event, what’s to stop the companies involved from moving to places where they might get 20 dollars of investment to produce two new jobs? Does this feel like a good deal?

Beyond economics, though, does AI acutally live up to its hype?

A wonderfully written piece, by Ian Bogost, in The Atlantic last March makes the following points:

“In science fiction, the promise or threat of artificial intelligence is tied to humans’ relationship to conscious machines. Whether it’s Terminators or Cylons or servants like the ‘Star Trek’ computer or the Star Wars droids, machines warrant the name AI when they become sentient – or at least self-aware enough to act with expertise, not to mention volition and surprise.

“What to make, then, of the explosion of supposed-AI in media, industry, and technology? Autonomous vehicles, for example. . .deploy a combination of sensors, data, and computation to perform the complex work of driving. But in most cases, the systems making claims to artificial intelligence aren’t sentient, self-aware, volitional, or even surprising. They’re just software.”

That’s right. And we are the wetware that created them. The question is only whether we remain the truly intelligent ones in our midst.

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