Top Human Minds Meet in Montreal to Discuss Artificial Minds

December 9, 2015 – In a headline yesterday Bloomberg Business shouted “Why 2015 was a Breakthrough Year in Artificial Intelligence.” There is no doubt that AI technology is evolving at a faster rate each year so the author, Jack Clark, is not wrong. A number of applications on my latest smartphone, a Nexus 6P running Android 6.0, attest to this. The level of pattern recognition has advanced dramatically.

Two examples:

  • The more often I use Messenger, the instant message texting application, the better it seems to get anticipating my word choices with such accuracy it is like it is writing the messages itself.
  • “OK Google,” lets me ask a question, not type a query, and the more I ask it the better and faster it understands and anticipates the things that interest me and the answers I seek.

This week the best AI human minds are convening in Montreal, Quebec at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference. This is the 29th time neuroscientists and engineers have gotten together to discuss computational intelligence. The papers being presented don’t talk about dire warnings regarding AI. In fact when you read the papers and presentation titles they are all about rules and algorithms and observations written in the nerdy language of computing. Companies present include IBM, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, all operating well-funded AI laboratories that publish advances regularly at a pace equal to the best academic institutions. Robotic manufacturers are in attendance with companies like Fanuc demonstrating how AI is enhancing industrial machine tool operations and manufacturing processes.

What have been some of the AI highlights of 2015?

  • autonomous vehicles have been getting better to the point that government jurisdictions are legislating regulations to open up roads and highways to them and insurance companies are studying how the technology will disrupt their business model.
  • AI computer programs are demonstrating advances in computer vision and pattern recognition that allows them to identify indivduals in pictures and videos and even express opinions about what they are seeing.
  • AI systems are teaching themselves to play computer games, some from the Atari era. Ever watch a computer play Pong or Breakout all by itself?
  • Speech recognition is really starting to work, just say “OK Google” or “Hey Siri” and be amazed at just how much these applications get right (Remember I come from the early days of speech recognition, the 1990s, when you had to talk in a concatenated cadence and train a computer for hours to recognize your individual voice with about 95% accuracy.)
  • Chess playing computers are better at the game than any human now. It wasn’t too long ago that chess masters were still beating the best IBM could offer but not anymore.
  • IBM’s Watson is proving to be a better diagnostician than doctors. Watson is no longer just a Jeopardy champion. It is now being employed in real-world applications from business to medicine with great effect.
  • AI programs are exhibiting self-awareness.
  • Ethical programming has entered the lexicon.
  • Lethal autonomous systems are closer to reality bringing the issue of AI’s usage in battlefield conditions to the forefront.

In 2015 Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking both expressed worry that AI could spell doom for humanity at its current pace of advancement. Musk even pledged $10 million U.S. to research into ensuring this doesn’t happen. In 2015 roboethicists are debating rules by which AI should be governed. For such people Isaac Asimov and his “Three Laws of Robotics” are just the starting point in developing parameters for an AI that propose a symbiotic relationship with humans and not one where the machines triumph over us.

And in 2015 the debate on job displacement and job losses continues to heat up. Technological unemployment remains an ongoing concern.

The year is drawing to a close and one wonders what 2016 will bring to AI? My guess is even faster advancements and more fear.


Robot playing chess with a human


Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...