9 September, 2015 - 11:57 By Dr Ian Pearson of Futurizon

Progress in AI pushes engineers to higher status and responsibility

AI has been slowly developing for decades, but recently it has become a major news trend. Last month, a computer beat humans in an IQ test.

Google has for some time been in the forefront of AI, or at least AI-related PR. It has bravely started exploring quantum computing as well as continuing its more conventional approaches, which of course include assorted neural nets as well as straightforward algorithmic methods. 

IBM's Watson also shows a lot of promise, bringing together sources into its musings to take advantage of computers' ability to process far more pieces of data simultaneously than humans. Microsoft has its Cortana, the main mystery being why they don't use their Cortana avatar as the primary interface instead of a crappy text box. Now Samsung and Apple are waking up too. Apple wants to improve iPhone AI way beyond Siri. Behind closed doors, military AI research will also be making progress. Countless small startups will accomplish things too, more often in niche areas, but niches add up to entire systems.

I find this very exciting. Self-driving cars need lots of good AI. Understanding what a user actually wants to do by getting to know them rather than needing everything spelled out in every detail every time will also make life easier. Monitoring things and advising of important events, changes or dangers will enhance safety, improve efficiency, and help us get more out of life. Best of all, getting a computer to do what you want by explaining to it will be far better than having to worry about writing code. If there are ambiguities, computers can ask for clarification.

It isn't without dangers though. As we are quickly learning, every new technology that can improve our lives also opens up new possibilities to marketers, advertisers and spammers, hackers, terrorists and criminals too, not to mention putting potentially embarrassing information on the net where others might hack or discover it. It also potentially invades privacy even further. 

The AI itself isn't the threat, it is the company that gathers the date, its customers, governments who might demand copies and logs. Also, if AI isn't completely perfect, and it won't be, there will be opportuntiies to mislead it. Even before we see masses of self-driving cars, we have already seen clear demonstrations that they might be hacked, or even caused to crash by things as simple as LEDs or laser pointers. These things need to be fixed before we let them loose in quantity.

As for the Terminator scenario, that hasn't gone away either. The goal of sentient AI is still here, and progress is slowly heading in that direction. I doubt it will happen through smartphone AIs adding together, or via a search engine gone rogue. Current developments are probably safe. Progress won't stop there though, and current AI still qualifies as part of the positive feedback loop driving all things singularity.

As always, it is a delicate balance of opportunity and threat. Each of us can make a personal decision on how much we trust it, and the less information we surrender, the less we get back. That's a simple bargain. On the larger national and global scale, our leaders know or understand very little indeed of what is on offer, or what threatens. Once again, that means that the important decisions about what to do, what to allow, what checks and barriers to put in place, and what security and safeguards are needed will fall to companies and ultimately to the engineers building the AI and the systems it is used with. 

Engineers gave us all the technology we have today. They offer us the potential of tomorrow. Since most people don't understand most of it, or even want to understand, engineers also have to accept the duty to protect everyone, make the moral decisions, decide the best balance of opportunity and threat. As more of our lives are influenced or directed by technology, engineers gradually become more powerful too.

That's quite a role. If someone has the ability to be an engineer, there are few other professions that can offer such a status.


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