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The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World

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And Elon Musk warns us that with AI we unleash the demon. Kevin Kelly describes in Wired exactly how the unleashing is being accomplished:

A few months ago I made the trek to the sylvan campus of the IBM research labs in Yorktown Heights, New York, to catch an early glimpse of the fast-arriving, long-overdue future of artificial intelligence. This was the home of Watson, the electronic genius that conquered Jeopardy! in 2011. The original Watson is still here—it’s about the size of a bedroom, with 10 upright, refrigerator-shaped machines forming the four walls. The tiny interior cavity gives technicians access to the jumble of wires and cables on the machines’ backs. It is surprisingly warm inside, as if the cluster were alive.

Today’s Watson is very different. It no longer exists solely within a wall of cabinets but is spread across a cloud of open-standard servers that run several hundred “instances” of the AI at once. Like all things cloudy, Watson is served to simultaneous customers anywhere in the world, who can access it using their phones, their desktops, or their own data servers. This kind of AI can be scaled up or down on demand. Because AI improves as people use it, Watson is always getting smarter; anything it learns in one instance can be immediately transferred to the others. And instead of one single program, it’s an aggregation of diverse software engines—its logic-deduction engine and its language-parsing engine might operate on different code, on different chips, in different locations—all cleverly integrated into a unified stream of intelligence.

Consumers can tap into that always-on intelligence directly, but also through third-party apps that harness the power of this AI cloud. Like many parents of a bright mind, IBM would like Watson to pursue a medical career, so it should come as no surprise that one of the apps under development is a medical-diagnosis tool. Most of the previous attempts to make a diagnostic AI have been pathetic failures, but Watson really works. When, in plain English, I give it the symptoms of a disease I once contracted in India, it gives me a list of hunches, ranked from most to least probable. The most likely cause, it declares, is Giardia—the correct answer. This expertise isn’t yet available to patients directly; IBM provides access to Watson’s intelligence to partners, helping them develop user-friendly interfaces for subscribing doctors and hospitals. “I believe something like Watson will soon be the world’s best diagnostician—whether machine or human,” says Alan Greene, chief medical officer of Scanadu, a startup that is building a diagnostic device inspired by the Star Trek medical tricorder and powered by a cloud AI. “At the rate AI technology is improving, a kid born today will rarely need to see a doctor to get a diagnosis by the time they are an adult.”

Medicine is only the beginning. All the major cloud companies, plus dozens of startups, are in a mad rush to launch a Watson-like cognitive service. According to quantitative analysis firm Quid, AI has attracted more than $17 billion in investments since 2009. Last year alone more than $2 billion was invested in 322 companies with AI-like technology. Facebook and Google have recruited researchers to join their in-house AI research teams. Yahoo, Intel, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter have all purchased AI companies since last year. Private investment in the AI sector has been expanding 62 percent a year on average for the past four years, a rate that is expected to continue.

Amid all this activity, a picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.

Around 2002 I attended a small party for Google—before its IPO, when it only focused on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder, who became the company’s CEO in 2011. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad-auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site who thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an AI.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 14 AI and robotics companies. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search contributes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every time you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter bunny looks like. Each of the 12.1 billion queries that Google’s 1.2 billion searchers conduct each day tutor the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousand-fold more data and 100 times more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI. My prediction: By 2024, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.

This is the point where it is entirely appropriate to be skeptical. For almost 60 years, AI researchers have predicted that AI is right around the corner, yet until a few years ago it seemed as stuck in the future as ever. There was even a term coined to describe this era of meager results and even more meager research funding: the AI winter. Has anything really changed?

Yes. Three recent breakthroughs have unleashed the long-awaited arrival of artificial intelligence: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 October 2014 at 10:23 am

Excellent analysis of the overarching problem baked into Microsoft Word

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I have increasing problems with Word as documents grow larger and more frequently revised. Sometimes Word will suddenly change the entire document—e.g., dropped caps vanish, stuff stops being centered, etc.

The problem, as Edward Mendelson explains in the NY Review of Books, is that Word developed its architecture top-down, logically, chunking out the tasks and goals. WordPerfect (which, like Mendelson, I greatly preferred) was built bottom-up, and as a result fitted the task better.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 October 2014 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Software, Writing

Siri helps those with autism

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Siri has more patience and is more even-tempered than most people, and that makes Siri a good interlocutor with someone who is autistic. Judith Newman writes in the NY Times:

Just how bad a mother am I? I wondered, as I watched my 13-year-old son deep in conversation with Siri. Gus has autism, and Siri, Apple’s “intelligent personal assistant” on the iPhone, is currently his B.F.F. Obsessed with weather formations, Gus had spent the hour parsing the difference between isolated and scattered thunderstorms — an hour in which, thank God, I didn’t have to discuss them. After a while I heard this:

Gus: “You’re a really nice computer.”

Siri: “It’s nice to be appreciated.”

Gus: “You are always asking if you can help me. Is there anything you want?”

Siri: “Thank you, but I have very few wants.”

Gus: “O.K.! Well, good night!”

Siri: “Ah, it’s 5:06 p.m.”

Gus: “Oh sorry, I mean, goodbye.”

Siri: “See you later!”

That Siri. She doesn’t let my communications-impaired son get away with anything. Indeed, many of us wanted an imaginary friend, and now we have one. Only she’s not entirely imaginary.

This is a love letter to a machine. It’s not quite the love Joaquin Phoenix felt in “Her,” last year’s Spike Jonze film about a lonely man’s romantic relationship with his intelligent operating system (played by the voice of Scarlett Johansson). But it’s close. In a world where the commonly held wisdom is that technology isolates us, it’s worth considering another side of the story.

It all began simply enough. I’d just read one of those ubiquitous Internet lists called “21 Things You Didn’t Know Your iPhone Could Do.” One of them was this: I could ask Siri, “What planes are above me right now?” and Siri would bark back, “Checking my sources.” Almost instantly there was a list of actual flights — numbers, altitudes, angles — above my head.

I happened to be doing this when Gus was nearby. “Why would anyone need to know what planes are flying above your head?” I muttered. Gus replied without looking up: “So you know who you’re waving at, Mommy.”

Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions (trains, planes, buses, escalators and, of course, anything related to weather) but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked. And I was grateful. Now, when my head was about to explode if I had to have another conversation about the chance of tornadoes in Kansas City, Mo., I could reply brightly: “Hey! Why don’t you ask Siri?”

It’s not that Gus doesn’t understand Siri’s not human. He does — intellectually. But like many autistic people I know, Gus feels that inanimate objects, while maybe not possessing souls, are worthy of our consideration. I realized this when he was 8, and I got him an iPod for his birthday. He listened to it only at home, with one exception. It always came with us on our visits to the Apple Store. Finally, I asked why. “So it can visit its friends,” he said.

So how much more worthy of his care and affection is Siri, with her . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2014 at 12:48 pm

Whisper: The ‘anonymous’ messaging app that reportedly tracks your location and shares data with the Pentagon

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I wonder whether we are going to start seeing services and products whose covert purpose is to monitor communications and locations for government agencies, with the agency acting assisting in development and funding in return for use of the service in surveillance. Brian Fung writes in the Washington Post:

It turns out Whisper — the social networking app that lets users post messages to the service anonymously — may have been tracking its users’ locations, sometimes even after the users opted out of the service’s geolocation features.

That information has occasionally been shared with the U.S. government, including agencies such as the Pentagon, using a lower legal standard than is commonly used by other tech companies, according to an in-depth reportby The Guardian.

Reporters from The Guardian recently visited Whisper’s headquarters in Los Angeles. What they discovered over the course of three days showed that Whisper not only kept tabs on accounts it deemed interesting — “military personnel,” a “sex-obsessed lobbyist,” and political staffers, to name a few — but that it retained that information for far longer than its Web site suggested.

I’ve reached out to Whisper for comment; I’ll update this post if and when I hear back. Whisper told The Guardian it “occasionally” uses user IP addresses but does not store usernames, phone numbers or personally identifiable information.

When a user opted out of the geolocation tracking feature, which allows users to see Whisper posts that are “nearby,” Whisper was still able to collect rough location data on a case-by-case basis from certain users’ phones, according to The Guardian. When Whisper found out that The Guardian was preparing its story for publication, the company reportedly rewrote its terms of service to allow the collection of general geolocation data even when users have turned off the feature.

One question moving forward is whether revising its terms of service is enough to protect Whisper from an inquiry by the Federal Trade Commission, which can pursue companies that engage in “unfair or deceptive” acts and practices. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2014 at 10:55 am

Synthetic performers

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An extremely interesting 10-minute video at Verge on the creation of (in effect) synthetic Justin Biebers. Worth watching, IMO. It’s the video at the top of the page.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 October 2014 at 10:12 am

Posted in Software, Technology, Video

Nice Chrome extension to help with Netflix

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The Younger Daughter just pointed out this little extension. I’ve now installed it and will post again after I get some experience with it.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 October 2014 at 7:24 am

Posted in Movies, Software

Cool clock

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Take a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2014 at 10:05 am

Posted in Software

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