Ted Greenwald

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Ted Greenwald of the Wall Street Journal presents a sober, clear-headed assessment of the threats posed to us by both Weak AI and Strong AI, with the help of Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, IBM cognitive-computing expert Guruduth S. Banavar and computer science professor Francesca Rossi. One exchange:


Some experts believe that AI is already taking jobs away from people. Do you agree?

Jaan Tallinn:

Technology has always had the tendency to make jobs obsolete. I’m reminded of an Uber driver whose services I used a while ago. His seat was surrounded by numerous gadgets, and he demonstrated enthusiastically how he could dictate my destination address to a tablet and receive driving instructions. I pointed out to him that, in a few years, maybe the gadgets themselves would do the driving. To which he gleefully replied that then he could sit back and relax—leaving me to quietly shake my head in the back seat. I do believe the main effect of self-driving cars will come not from their convenience but from the massive impact they will have on the job market.

In the long run, we should think about how to organize society around something other than near-universal employment.•

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It’s probably a fair bet that most people believe computers are already more intelligent than us. But even computationally it’s possible our smartphones will be smarter than us in five to ten years. Even if it hasn’t happened by then, it will happen. Something that was impossible a few decades ago, that would have cost billions if it had been possible, will soon be available at a reasonable price, prepared to sit in your pocket or palm.

As Ted Greenwald of the WSJ recently reminded, smart machines don’t have to make us dumb. From automobiles to digital watches, we’ve always ceded certain chores to technology, but these new machines won’t be anything like the ones we know. They will be by far the greatest tools we’ve ever created. What will that mean, positive or negative? I’m wholeheartedly in favor of them, even think they’re necessary, but that doesn’t mean great gifts aren’t attended by great challenges.

From Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post:

Ray Kurzweil made a startling prediction in 1999 that appears to be coming true: that by 2023 a $1,000 laptop would have the computing power and storage capacity of a human brain.  He also predicted that Moore’s Law, which postulates that the processing capability of a computer doubles every 18 months, would apply for 60 years — until 2025 — giving way then to new paradigms of technological change.

Kurzweil, a renowned futurist and the director of engineering at Google, now says that the hardware needed to emulate the human brain may be ready even sooner than he predicted — in around 2020 — using technologies such as graphics processing units (GPUs), which are ideal for brain-software algorithms. He predicts that the complete brain software will take a little longer: until about 2029.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling.  Within seven years — about when the iPhone 11 is likely to be released — the smartphones in our pockets will be as computationally intelligent as we are. It doesn’t stop there, though.  These devices will continue to advance, exponentially, until they exceed the combined intelligence of the human race. Already, our computers have a big advantage over us: they are connected via the Internet and share information with each other billions of times faster than we can. It is hard to even imagine what becomes possible with these advances and what the implications are.•

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We create tools to do things that we can’t do or can’t do well or fast enough. As long as there have been tools, their ability to relieve us of this task or that (“skill fade,” it’s come to be called) seemed it might doom us. Not so. Digital watches didn’t make children dumb, unable to tell time, and offloading some of our memory to computers doesn’t erase our wetware. Thank heavens for the invention of typewriters and calculators and computers. These innovations are a key aspect of human progress, and usually we come up with new and interesting ways to use this freed-up bandwidth.

We should be careful when ceding life-and-death tasks to AI–robotic surgery, autopilot in aviation, etc.–but for the most part, new tools don’t impoverish us while enriching us. The opening of Ted Greenwald’s WSJ piece, “Will Smart Machines Make Us Stupid?

Society stands at a crossroads of artificial intelligence: We can design computers that sharpen our wits or we can let our machines turn us into ignoramuses. That observation capped a provocative panel on Tuesday at Austin’s South By Southwest conference.

Increasingly intelligent machines — search engines that yield knowledge on demand, smartphones that understand plain English, computers that proffer medical diagnoses, ad tech that offers to sell you just what you’re looking for — represent a “tipping point,” said Doug Lenat, a former Stanford and Carnegie Mellon computer science professor who is CEO of Cycorp, a maker of machine reasoning software. “We could become smarter or dumber – much smarter or much dumber.”

Electronic calculators, Lenat argued during the panel entitled “AI State of the Union,” have created generations of students who can perform mathematical tasks very quickly but don’t understand the underlying concepts. Similarly, Google “swaddles” users in a blanket of instant information, relieving them of the burden of independent thought and inquiry. The next wave of artificial intelligence — loosely defined as a computer’s ability to distinguish between useful and useless information at any given moment — could propel us irrevocably down that path.

“This could lead to Idiocracy,” Lenat said, referring to the 2006 Hollywood satire about a future in which human intellect has taken a steep dive. The result would be a society “where no one has to understand anything about the world, where everything just seems like magic.”

Alternatively, he said, computer scientists could design artificial intelligence “to challenge us the way Aristotle challenged Alexander the Great, to make us smarter, more rational, more human, to understand the world more deeply.”•