In hacker circles, the “Internet of Things” is often the object of derision. Do we really need the IoT toaster? But there’s one phrase that — while not new — is really starting to annoy me in its current incarnation: AI or Artificial Intelligence.
The problem isn’t the phrase itself. It used to mean a collection of techniques used to make a computer look like it was smart enough to, say, play a game or hold a simulated conversation. Of course, in the movies it means HAL9000. Lately, though, companies have been overselling the concept and otherwise normal people are taking the bait.
The Alexa Effect
Not to pick on Amazon, but all of the home assistants like Alexa and Google Now tout themselves as AI. By the most classic definition, that’s true. AI techniques include matching natural language to predefined templates. That’s really all these devices are doing today. Granted the neural nets that allow for great speech recognition and reproduction are impressive. But they aren’t true intelligence nor are they even necessarily direct analogs of a human brain.
For example, want to make your Harmony remote pause your TV? Say “Alexa: Tell Harmony to pause.” The Alexa recognizes “Tell” and “Harmony” and probably deletes “to” (a process called noise disposal). That’s it. There are a few tricks so maybe it can figure out that “TV” belongs to Harmony, but there’s no real logic or learning taking place.
In the same way that janitors became sanitation engineers, anything that the computer does is now artificial intelligence. All by itself, that’s not a big deal. Just more marketing hyperbole.
The danger is that people are now getting spun up that the robot revolution is right around the corner. [Elon Musk] is one of the prime offenders. Granted, some critics think he is just trying to protect his own AI projects, but on the face of it, at least, he is claiming that AI is going to more or less take over the world. And it isn’t just him. Even [Bill Gates] has added a little fear into the equation.
You might argue that robots are going to take many of our jobs. I’ve often said, the government could solve that by making corporate ownership of robotic machines illegal. They would have to lease them from individuals. You get your basic robot at birth, a marketplace sells its service, and you can roll your profits into more or better robots, if you choose, to increase your income. AI might make us lazy so all we do is sit around all day watching Netflix.
However, nothing in the state of the art of AI today is going to wake up and decide to kill the human masters. Despite appearances, the computers are not thinking. You might argue that neural networks could become big enough to emulate a brain. Maybe, but keep in mind that the brain has about 100 billion neurons and almost 10 to the 15th power interconnections. Worse still, there isn’t a clear consensus that the neural net made up of the cells in your brain is actually what is responsible for conscious thought. There’s some thought that the neurons are just control systems and the real thinking happens in a biological quantum computer.
That may or may not be true, but the point is we aren’t very likely to be on the verge of creating positronic brains. One day, perhaps, but that day isn’t in the near term, despite the marketing hype. Besides, it seems to me if you build an electronic brain that works like a human brain, it is going to have all the problems a human brain has (years of teaching, distraction, mental illness, and a propensity for error).
You can argue that [Musk] is looking further down the road. But with quotes evaluating the AI threat as greater than the threat from North Korea, it seems like [Musk] is calling it an immediate problem.
Starbucks Gone Amok
It doesn’t help that you see press coverage of things like the BitBarista from The University of Edinburgh. The device is simple and innocuous enough. It is just a home coffee brewer that has a Raspberry Pi and its own Bitcoin account. You can buy coffee using Bitcoin or the machine can ask you to perform services for it like filling it with coffee or cleaning away the coffee grounds. It can pay you using Bitcoin or free coffee. It also lets consumers vote on where the next batch of coffee comes from.
All by itself, not a bad little Raspberry Pi project. We feature plenty of projects like that. But recent BBC coverage had talking heads expounding about how machines could be in business for themselves have their own funds and buy themselves upgrades. This isn’t the fault of the developers, but rather the bombastic media. No wonder laypeople think we are on the verge of the robot apocalypse.
Before you leap to the comments to remind me this isn’t a hack, you might wonder why I bring this up. It is simple: We are a relatively small group of people who have a disproportionate influence on what our friends, families, and co-workers think. I don’t know much about, say, investing. If [Warren Buffet] and [Ben Bernanke] tell me that I should be buying stock in horse shoe manufacturing plants, I would be stupid not to think about it. So if you didn’t know much about our business and you hear that [Musk], [Gates], and a [Stephen Hawking] are worried AI is going to take over the world, you’d worry about it, too. We need to spread some sense into the conversation.
While we might not need an IoT toaster, an AI toaster would certainly be annoying, as you can see below.