Great Expectations for Artificial Intelligence

Part 1: Should we fear or embrace the power of technology? Futurist Byron Reese explains how tomorrow's reality may be more beautiful than sci-fi.

Movies, novels, and even our imaginations show us futures where machines take control over humankind. Futurist Byron Reese tells us why that’s unlikely… and in part 2, why there’s hope for humans yet.

Is technology good or bad? Answers to this question have varied widely throughout history – Frankenstein, the Luddites – and continue to diverge dramatically. As a society, we’ve become comfortable with automating tedious, physically demanding, dangerous work, such as working in a freezer case or lifting heavy items. But now that technology has evolved to a point where artificial intelligence (AI) can automate creative tasks, such as writing marketing headlines, I started to wonder if everything we do as humans can be reduced to automated machinery.

Luckily, one of the best parts of my job is being around super-smart people who work on AI, machine learning, big data, pattern recognition, robotics, and other technologies. To get answers, I talked to futurist Byron Reese, who wrote, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers and the Future of Humanity.

Why are we so afraid?

“I wondered why people have such different opinions on AI,” he says. “Stephen Hawking says to be afraid of it, Bill Gates says to be afraid of it, but other people think that's crazy talk. What I believe is people have different views on technology not because they know different things but because they believe different things.”

“I’ve boiled it down to three questions. If you answer these three questions, I can probably tell you what you think about AI. The first question is, ‘Are you a machine?’ The second question is, ‘What is your self? What is that voice you hear in your head?’ The third is, ‘What is the nature of reality?’”

He has asked the questions to every one of the 100 guests he’s had on his podcast, Voices in AI.

“Ninety five out of 100 guests have said yes, they are machines. But when I ask a live audience, ‘Do you believe you are a machine?,’ only 15% of them say yes. In fact, my editor wrote in the margin of my manuscript where I talk about people being machines, ‘Oh, come on. Does anybody really think that?’”

The answer is they do and they are scared. Why?

“Because if you’re a machine,” Reese says, “then someday, we’ll build a mechanical you, and it will get better and better and better until eventually, it’s unrecognizable.”

And we – they – are trying. They’re trying to build a mechanical you, or at least a mechanical somebody.

“There’s a multi-national, multi-billion dollar project in Europe called the Human Brain Project,” Reese explains. “They are trying to model the human brain with computers, hoping that when they turn it on it will wake up and say, ‘Good morning, Dave.’

But it hasn’t happened yet – not even the mouse brain they are starting with. So, we are probably safe from being completely replaced by machines, at least in our lifetimes.

Context is critical

And Reese doesn’t think it will happen ever, partly because computers don’t have context. Context is what gives meaning – gives intelligence – to data.

“Are computers actually intelligent or are they able to simulate intelligence?” he asks. “I think they can only simulate intelligence.”

“A computer can simulate someone that knows how to play chess, but it doesn’t actually play chess. It's just a bunch of ones and zeros. The computer doesn't know what the board is or what the pieces are. It just has a bunch of arrays and tables and look ups.”

The computer doesn’t know what chess means. It doesn’t know why it matters. It has no context.

This idea of context is critical. If you watch the videos of the deaf children or adults who hear for the first time, you know what we’re talking about. (And if you haven’t watched these videos, go now. We’ll wait. We will also wait while you watch the videos of color-blind people see color for the first time with Enchroma glasses.) The deaf people can now hear sound, but until their brain learns to interpret it, it's just noise. They don’t have context yet. They hear sound but they don’t know what it means.

A computer doesn't have context. So even with a chess game, it's just evaluating a series of possibilities with some constraints that have been given to it or that it has taught itself.

A computer doesn't have meaning. It doesn't know why the moves or even the game matter. It doesn’t know what winning is or losing is.

But that doesn’t mean technology can’t be our friend.

Technology solves problems

“They think there was a time 80,000 years ago when we were down to only 800 pairs of humans,” Reese says. “If you were taking wagers on who was going to run the planet, you wouldn't have bet on us, an endangered species.”

“And yet here we are. How did that happen? It happened because we learned a trick and the trick is technology.”

Technology is what solved and continues to solve the scarcity problem.

“There’s never been enough of the good stuff in life,” Reese says. “There’s never been enough food, never been enough medicine, never been enough education.”

“This trick we’ve learned – technology – has helped us overcome that scarcity.”

A plow attached to a horse with a harness – that’s technology. Canning food, salting food, freezing food – that’s technology. A printing press – that’s technology. Any tool that makes humans more efficient, that increases abundance is technology. And technology helps us solve problems.

Technology enables efficiency

“The supply chain, as a whole, is pretty inefficient,” Reese says.

“And yet, if you had real-time data about everything, such that, when somebody runs over a nail and gets a flat tire, that sets off a series of events that goes all the way down to the rubber plantation in South America – that there is this almost living organism, with these sensors and technology tying it all together, to create efficiencies, these efficiencies are going to be good for the environment, they're going to be good for people, they’re going to be good for workers.”

“There is this private jet company. They have a big supply chain challenge. If they fly a customer to San Diego, do they leave the jet in San Diego or do they fly it to Los Angeles and hope it’s used again?”

“Before, they used to just wing it. They didn’t know.”

“But now, they use data to make these decisions: weather, events, demand on commercial aircraft, and a thousand other things.”

“And now they get these real benefits – these real increases, both top line and bottom line.”

Technology. AI. Big data. They helped solve this problem of what to do with this expensive asset that costs a lot of money to operate.

It’s not just a supply chain thing.

It’s an energy thing. And a people thing. And an earth thing.

Technology dares us to dream

Humans have a spark — an ingenuity — that machines don’t have.

Reese continues. “In the past, dreamers talked about a world where there’s equality between the sexes and freedom of religion. All of these things seemed outlandish at the time, but now our world is on a path to get them.”

“There are problems that we can solve with technology and we will solve them. And when you look up at the night sky, it looks like we live in the universe with a lot of room for expansion. I think that's our future: billions of people living on a billion planets, each empowered to live life to their maximum potential. A million DaVincis, countless Marie Curies.”

There are problems that we can solve with technology and we will solve them. And when you look up at the night sky, it looks like we live in the universe with a lot of room for expansion. I think that's our future: billions of people living on a billion planets, each empowered to live life to their maximum potential. A million DaVincis, countless Marie Curies.

“I believe in the power of technology to empower people to do great things,” Reese says. “AI is a technology that effectively makes you smarter. If you're holding a program that can diagnose the flu versus a cold, then suddenly know how to do that. I mean, you don’t know, but it’s as if you know.”

“It’s using technology to make people smarter. And the question I would pose is, ‘Is that ever a bad thing?’”

“If everyone could go to bed tonight and wake up with 20 extra IQ points in the morning, would that be good for the human race? I think it would be.”

Great Expectations for Artificial Intelligence

“It’s the same thing with automation. The technology we invent increases people's productivity. That's what it does. It makes you more productive. You can move more bricks with a forklift than you can carry with a wheelbarrow or that you can carry on your back.”

“Is making people more productive ever bad? Is making people smarter ever bad?”

Nope. It’s not.

By Annette Mertens

Storyteller with an insatiable curiosity — some would call it nosiness — about other people and cultures. She grew up around the world, joined the Peace Corps and now observes engineers in their natural habitat to learn their language.

Byron Reese

With 25 years as a successful tech entrepreneur, with multiple IPOs and exits along the way, Byron Reese is uniquely suited to comment on the transformative effect of technology on the workplace and on society at large. He writes books that explore the wonders of the world of tomorrow and delights audiences around the world with his vivid and energetic presentations on the future of work and life.

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