Artificial Intelligence Milestone Reached, but Unnoticed

by Diane Francis

PAL Robotics has on show a walking robot at the European Robotics Forum in Edinburgh.  Featuring: Walking robot Where: Edinburgh, United Kingdom When: 22 Mar 2017 Credit: Euan Cherry/ ORG XMIT: wenn31217887

The Olympics never fails to inspire the world by demonstrating the highest levels of physical prowess by human beings.

But last month, the highest levels of technological prowess by human beings was reached and remained relatively unnoticed. Two groups of scientists and engineers — one American from Microsoft Corp. and one Chinese from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. – proved that their artificial intelligence software could beat human levels of reading comprehension.

“This is the biggest AI (artificial intelligence) breakthrough,” commented Ray Kurzweil at a conference I attended in January. He is the world’s pioneer in artificial intelligence and is currently head of engineering at Google. “This test demonstrated the (AI’s) ability to understand (meaning and) inference, implications, and simple common sense. It cannot be underestimated in its significance.”

There were no gold medals handed out, but this is truly a milestone and will mean that artificial intelligence is now going to perform tasks done by most “knowledge workers” in addition to the “blue collar” jobs that automation continues to eliminate.

However, the test showed that the AIs were only slightly better than a native English speaker in comprehension, but the trajectory is obvious.

The Stanford test provided a glimpse into future capability, said Kurzweil. “AIs can absorb one million books in six seconds and (reading comprehension) will not linger at the human levels, but will improve.”

Both companies were ebullient. Alibaba’s news release credited its software with “topping humans for the first time in one of the world’s most-challenging reading comprehension tests.”

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Microsoft said it had made an “AI that can read a document and answer questions about it as well as a person.”

Despite immense capability, the reality is that commercialization, then adoption, of AI technologies usually takes longer than originally estimated.

For example, in 2010, the most high-profile AI product — the driverless car — was supposed to have nearly taken over the world by now. But mass adoption is several years away even though everyone agrees human beings are terrible drivers.

A German report suggested society must first impose necessary operating principles involving driverless vehicles: Vehicles must be hack-proof for public safety reasons and software decisions must place human safety over animals or property if an accident cannot be avoided.

The issue of moral dilemma is more difficult. For instance, does the car swerve to avoid a collision but hit an elderly person or a woman with a baby carriage? The Germans recommend that control of the car must shift to a human in the driver’s seat immediately. If the human fails to act, or is absent, the vehicle must be programmed to stop immediately even if a collision is imminent.

But for those tasks that don’t involve life and death decisions, software is already rapidly replacing paralegals, call center staff, researchers, tax preparers, journalists writing formulaic financial or sports stories and computer programmers.

On the positive side, social skills will remain in demand or those requiring the five senses such as recreational workers, trainers, chefs, psychologists, massage therapists, dentists, physicians, nurses, therapists, social workers, teachers, mechanics, installers, repairers, craftsmen, and designers.

And new jobs will be invented and grow such as app developers, social media managers, driverless car engineers, cloud computer specialists, big data scientists, YouTube content creators, sustainability managers, and drone operators. The fact is that two-thirds of children now entering school in the developed world will end up in jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

“This (AI) is not an alien invasion,” said Kurzweil. “The smart phone is a brain extender. These are tools that enhance our work and personal lives.”

first published Financial Post