AI’s baby steps

Robot  women in technology background
Robot women in technology background

Machine intelligence or Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the subject of countless movies, books and newspaper articles. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are all experimenting with various forms of advanced AI.

What is AI? Most machines, even some of the most advanced chess computers, are really dumb. They will just take your instructions and work out a formula. But what if a machine can think for itself and even converse with another machine or human? That is probably the best definition of AI in simple layman’s terms. AI and robotics differ, though they can converge. AI can be in a stationary machine, without any ability to go about or be in a humanoid or other mobile form.

There is a fear in the general population that one day AI-equipped robots could take over the world. Such a possibility is explored in the Terminator movies and Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novels which first introduced Asimov’s famous, Three Laws of Robotics.

These are: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Several scientists have called for these laws to be updated.


Right now scientists are taking baby steps to evolve machines that can do simple navigation tasks, make simple decisions, or remember a couple of bits of information. But, soon they will evolve machines that can execute more complex tasks and have much better general intelligence.

The ultimate hope is to create human-level intelligence. Recently, several leading figures, such as, Physicist Stephen Hawking and Innovator Elon Musk have raised fears that AI could wipe out the human race one day. This sounds rather alarming and certain real world incidents are not helping either.

Just last week, stories emerged about two Facebook AI Chatbots (named Alice and Bob) inventing their own language that humans could not understand. Just a few months earlier, a Microsoft chatbot had to be shut down after it degenerated into making pro-Hitler and other inappropriate statements over the web.

The messages shared by the two Chatbots did not seem to be especially sinister. But, not being able to understand what an AI was saying or why it was saying it, concerned many in the scientific community and the wider society and led to worries about such systems becoming sentient or conducting decisions without humans being able to hold them accountable.

However, several artificial intelligence experts have dismissed reports that robots are becoming sentient or that we are living through the prelude to Terminator. Facebook Chief Mark Zuckerberg himself has stated that the perceived danger from AI is overstated. The only real danger at the moment is that AI and robotics are taking away some human jobs.


For example, Facebook already has several Chatbots that can carry on a rudimentary conversation with humans. Want to order flowers? Then the 1-800-Flowers app will do that for you. But, this also means that at least one human is out of a job. Besides, the Chatbots and robots have other advantages - they need not be paid, they never sleep or get tired and they never get irritated. It is not surprising that more companies want to employ robots where possible, especially, for labour intensive tasks

However, there are some jobs which still require humans – and a touch of humanity. Can a robot ever be a compassionate nurse? Hopefully not.

There is in fact one skill we already have that can increasingly be leveraged for income: being human. Humans are social animals, so the jobs that require lots of emotional intelligence - being a nurse, marketing jobs, being a psychologist, any job that involves interacting with people - those will be safe jobs. At the end of the day, we want to interact with people, not robots.


Can a robot understand a concept such as kindness or altruism? Or can it develop hatred and anger? That is a question yet to be tested or answered.

Artificial Intelligence is not necessarily a bad thing as the movies make it out to be. AI can be used for things that we feel good about. Can computers be creative? AI can certainly make music and artwork that people find pleasing. Last year, Google launched Magenta, a research project aimed at pushing the limits of what AI can do in the arts. Robots will be driving our cars completely autonomously within the next 20 years. Some even say that humans could be banned from driving by 2050.

There will be revolutionary advances in AI in terms of medicine and medical care. There are predictions that we could seek the help of AI chatbots to carry on our lives virtually even after we pass away mortally.

Common response

In the meantime, we can usually expect some sort of frustration when dealing with robots and AI equipped machines. Google’s Home and Amazon’s Alexa (soon to be joined by the Apple Home Pod) can already carry on some sort of conversation with a human, though “I cannot understand your question” is a rather common response.

Indeed, robots can be rather slow sometimes. In England, Councils should stop introducing pay-by-phone parking because motorists are “too busy” to speak to robots, the Automobile Association has said.

Research by the motoring group found that cashless parking machines which accept payment by calling or texting an automated service, are deeply unpopular among drivers with two thirds refusing to use them. Responding to the survey some 70 per cent of motorists said, they were more likely to keep searching for a space, rather than parking in one where using their mobile to pay is mandatory.

Appropriate options

The process of paying by phone or text can take several minutes as drivers must call a number, select appropriate options, enter payment details, and then wait for confirmation. The Colombo Municipal Council too plans to unveil such machines soon and we hope the process will be much smoother.

There is no doubt that we will see most jobs being replaced with intelligent machines by 2050. Many chores at home will also be relegated to robots (they already have robotic vacuum cleaners).

One or two setbacks should not compel AI researchers into shutting down the nascent AI networks. Every setback is an experience that will help set things right. In the right hands and used in the right way, AI will be a major force for good. 


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