AI and the Future of Our Children
A few weeks ago, Google debuted a forthcoming flavor of their virtual assistant called “Google Duplex” powered by artificial intelligence. The virtual assistant used natural language to pose as a human assistant calling an unsuspecting hair salon receptionist in order to make a haircut appointment for “a client”. The conversation went back and forth as they tried to schedule a convenient date and time. The virtual assistant spoke in a very natural voice, answered questions, made decisions and even added human-like sounds like “hmmm” and “um”. The appointment was made flawlessly and the salon receptionist had no idea she was speaking with a computer. Collective jaws dropped in the audience followed by laughing and cheering. It was both fantastic and terrifying.
Artificial Intelligence, Deep Learning and Robots
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is defined as the ability for any device to analyze data in order to make decisions based on its environment in order to reach a goal. The goal could be any task such as making an appointment, picking up a passenger, locating wreckage on the sea floor, or [gulp] having a drone search for a specific human target and strike when it “thinks” a match is made. Deep learning is the ability for machines to not just make decisions based on programming, but to actually learn from mistakes and make corrections for the next time a similar experience is encountered. This is very similar to how children learn by making mistakes. There is a growing fear that robots will take over the world someday. That may be only half true. Robots are useless without AI and/or deep learning. As a body needs a brain to control it, robots are really just physical extensions of the software that controls them. If you’re thinking about the Terminator movies then you’re not far off base. The technology isn’t on the horizon...it is here!
Can a machine actually learn and think? While many believe learning and thinking are limited to the neural activity produced by the brain, others find this to be a philosophical debate. Dutch systems scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra once said "The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim." Submarines can go faster and further than their biological counterparts but are they really “swimming” per se? Experts believe that machines will soon get the ability to not only learn independently, but to think independently. Just like their human counterparts.
The Good News
Looking through optimistic lenses, fundamental positive changes to our society are coming. Cars will become safer and eventually eliminate accidents. Medical researchers will be able to analyze millions of test results to look for patterns within seconds instead of years. The play field will be leveled for people with disabilities. Computerized assistants will carry out tasks in order to save our most precious commodity; time.
The Bad News While mega-corporations like Google and Facebook seemingly give away their services for free, we have no idea what is being done or will be done with the data being collected. Experts warn that Google themselves may not even know how to leverage the data being collected on all of us. We all carry mobile devices that have GPS, fingerprint readers, facial recognition, gyroscopes, and time/location stamped photos. All of which paint a strikingly clear picture of who we are. Some studies even suggest that these companies know more about us then our closest friends and family do.
Rethinking Careers and Education
Baxter is a factory robot. It costs about what a minimum wage worker makes in a year. However, Baxter takes the place of 3 workers, never needs breaks, vacation, benefits, or sick leave. Companies like Uber and Lyft are working hard to create autonomous vehicles that may someday replace the roughly 4 million professional drivers on the road. DaVinci is a robot performing so many surgeries today that the surgeons themselves are forfeiting the scalpels for supervisory roles. DaVinci doesn’t slip, doesn’t shake, and uses laser guided precision to cut, study, remove, suture, clean up and perform other tasks involved in routine surgery.
Today’s children will be faced with challenges unseen since the industrial revolution but on a lager, global scale. To be successful, our children will need to choose fields that supplement the technology instead of the other way around. Jobs that rely on human thinking and contact today will most likely be replaced by technology tomorrow. Physical work will be replaced by robots. Jobs that rely on data analysis will be replaced by AI. Research will be carried out by systems using deep learning. Eventually these systems will not only be able to program themselves but each other. The winners may just end up being the people who build the systems that build other systems. This will be the new reality. Anyone pursuing an education now or in the future should start planning for this shift immediately.