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Artificial Intelligence: Savior, Antichrist, or Hyperbole?



By Duane Thresher, Ph.D.     May 23, 2018

Artificial intelligence is going to save humanity! Artificial intelligence is going to destroy humanity! Artificial intelligence is going to sell magazines and get research funding! Which is it? And what is it?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been in the news a lot recently, including from my alma mater MIT, where I got a BS in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and where I used to hang out at the AI Lab (which was funded by the military). I later wrote parts of some of the most sophisticated computer programs in existence -- climate models (for example, see NCAR's climate model and search for "Thresher") -- and AI is just programming (which will make it another victim of IT incompetence).

AI has been most notoriously in the news as the war of words between Tesla's Elon Musk and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Watching IT incompetent Musk and IT incompetent Zuckerberg arguing about AI reminded me of the saying "those of you who think you know it all are very annoying to those of us who do".

But what is AI? The public, who pays for the research so gets to decide what it is, thinks of AI as a computer that is smarter than humans. Like HAL in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (for each letter in HAL, go to the letter after it in the alphabet and the result is IBM). Or Colossus in the 1970 movie. Or The Terminator in the 1984 movie. These led to the perception of AI as Antichrist, cleverly trying to kill us. This doomsday scenario is then played upon by media hounds like Elon "AI-as-Antichrist" Musk just to get attention, particularly investors' attention (when you plow through money without making any, you need constant investment).

Those whose fantasy is to be saviors and who want to be perceived as intelligent themselves -- although usually IT incompetent, like Mark "AI-as-Savior" Zuckerberg -- and researchers who want funding, insist that AI will save humanity by saving us from our stupidity, as if AI wasn't created by humans and not destined to have all our problems, which may be inherent (God created Man in his own image and Godel's Theorem says all mathematical systems, like logical thought, have contradictions).

Google is very much into AI as Savior, including its research at MIT (IT incompetent MIT President Reif is a big fan of AI for the "public good", but doesn't say who gets to decide that), but Google's use of AI for mass privacy invasions and censorship would make it more of AI as Antichrist. Same for Facebook. Interestingly, in George Orwell's 1984, the privacy-invading censoring Big Brother could be a computer, and while introducing its Macintosh computers in the 1980's, Apple's award-winning commercials were about smashing Big Brother, suggested to be IBM.

The media, IT incompetent as it is, portrays AI as Savior or Antichrist, whichever sells more ads, and always uses Hyperbole, with a capital H.

Robots are often thought of as AI, even though robots these days are dumb. A robotic vacuum cleaner is not intelligent just because it can maneuver around furniture; any mouse can do better. The Terminator came from the future, 2029, which is just 10 years away now and no robot even remotely as advanced yet exists. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, which takes place in the 2360's, the good robot Data is portrayed as being uniquely ahead of his time but still not really humanly intelligent. And he has an evil twin.

Expert systems are often thought of as AI. But expert systems know only about one subject, like IBM's chess computer Deep Blue (programming a computer with an encyclopedia so it can win Jeopardy like IBM's computer Watson does not make it an expert on even one subject). At best that makes them idiot savants. Moreover, these expert systems are not at all humanly intelligent in their interaction with humans. If you've ever typed a question into Google Search, you know how fruitless and frustrating that can be, just like using Amazon Echo/Alexa or speech recognition programs or language translation programs or ...

In 1950 Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test, which is if you conversed blindly with something, about any subject, and you can't tell if that something is a human or a computer, then if it is really a computer, it has passed the Turing Test and is AI. Turing predicted that by 2000 a computer would exist that could fool 30% of the public, but to date no computer has passed the Turing Test to the degree the research-paying public would consider AI.

Also in 1950, when asked how long before there would be commercial fusion (clean) nuclear power (not the commercial fission (dirty) nuclear power we have today), scientists, including those at MIT, answered "50 years". In 2000, when they were asked the same question, they gave the same answer. (And the DeLorean car's Mr. Fusion power source in the 1985 movie Back to the Future is from 2015.) AI is exactly the same as fusion in always being 50 years in the future. Moreover, fusion is easier than AI.

I've lived long enough to see every new technology, particularly computers, be touted as the solution to the "education problem" and seen every one of them fail. In fact, computers are often the problem in education these days. AI is just more of the same.

Same for every other field.

In fact, AI has had multiple heydays since 1950. We just happen to be in one now. I can't wait until this one is over, although I'll probably be around for the next, unless, as has already happened to others, I'm killed by a Tesla or Google self-driving smart car (I'd rather take my chances with a New York cabbie, which says a lot).

Thus, any intelligent being, artificial or human, has to conclude that AI is just Hyperbole, with a capital H, not Savior or Antichrist.