Intelligent Future Consulting / Intelligent Future Research
BOOK RICHARD    

Blog

What is a Milestone in Artificial Intelligence?

On January 13, 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer competed in a practice round of Jeopardy, the long-running trivia quiz show. Playing against the program’s two most successful champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, Watson won the preliminary match. Is this all a big publicity stunt? Of course it is. But it also marks a significant milestone in the development of artificial intelligence.

For decades, AI – artificial intelligence – has been pursued by computer scientists and others with greater and lesser degrees of success. Promises of Turing tests passed and human-level intelligence being achieved have routinely fallen far short. Nonetheless, there has continued to be an inexorable march toward more and ever more capable machine intelligences. In the midst of all this, IBM’s achievement in developing Watson may mark a very important turning point.

Early attempts at strong AI or artificial general intelligence (AGI) brought to light the daunting complexity of trying to emulate human intelligence. However, during the last few decades, work on weak AI – intelligence targeted to very specific domains or tasks – has met with considerably more success. As a result, today AI permeates our lives, playing a role in everything from anti-lock braking systems to warehouse stocking to electronic trading on stock exchanges. Little by little, AI has taken on roles previously performed by people and bested them in ways once unimaginable. Computer phone attendants capable of routing hundreds of calls a minute. Robot-operated warehouses that deliver items to packers in seconds. Pattern matching algorithms that pick out the correct image from among thousands in a matter of moments. But until now, nothing could compete with a human being when it came to general knowledge about the world.

True, these human champions may yet best Watson, a product of IBM’s DeepQA research project. (The three day match will air February 14-16.) But we only need to think back to 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov to understand that it doesn’t really matter. Kasparov had handily beaten Deep Blue only a year earlier, though the 1996 match did mark the first time a computer won a single game in such a match. Today, just as then, the continuing improvements in computer processing speed, memory, storage and algorithms all but ensure that any such triumph would be fleeting. We have turned a page on this once most human of intellectual feats and the world won’t be the same again.

So what can we look ahead to now that we’ve reached this milestone? In the short term, IBM plans to market their technology and profit by their achievement. Initially, the system price will be high, probably in the millions of dollars, but like so much computer technology, the price will plummet over the coming decade. As the technology becomes more widely used, a range of tasks and jobs previously considered safe from AI will no longer be performed by human workers. Protectionist regulations may attempt to save these jobs but these efforts will probably be short-lived. The resulting large-scale unemployment will require a rethinking of government institutions and safety nets, as well as corporate business models.

At the same time, this type of general knowledge AI (it’s far too early to call it AGI) will contribute to greater and more rapid advances in machine intelligence. Such technology could bootstrap the Semantic Web into broad usage. In all likelihood, it will be used to create personal intelligent agents, giving users the virtual equivalent of a staff of assistants. And eventually, it could facilitate the development of a true artificial general intelligence or at least contribute to the education of such an AGI.

Will such an intelligence be conscious? Will it be self-improving, leading to a positive feedback loop that brings about a powerful and hopefully benign superintelligence? Only time will tell. But perhaps one day, on a future holographic version of Jeopardy, we’ll be presented with clues to which the correct response will be, “What was the Singularity?”

Retirement Planning for Boomers

January 1, 2011 marked yet another milestone for the Baby Boomers, the massive post-war generation born between 1946 and 1964. As of this New Year’s Day, the first of the boomers turned 65, with an additional ten thousand becoming senior citizens every single day. As many have long observed, this will create pressures and challenges that will ripple throughout our society. Pensions, health care, housing and jobs are only a few of the areas that will be impacted by this outsized demographic shift.

At the same time, many among the youngest of the adult generations – Generation Y, or the Millennials – now find their career opportunities considerably more limited that their parents once did. Currently, adults from 18 to 24 years old are experiencing between 2-3 times the rate of unemployment as the rest of the working population. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nov. 2010) With the Great Recession and its glacially slow recovery likely to hold unemployment at these levels for at least several more years, the Millennials have a rough road ahead of them. And let us not forget, it’s a road we all travel on together.

On this scale, stagnated careers and lost opportunities impact more than just the lives of individuals and their families. Federal, state and local tax revenues as well as Social Security and Medicare would all be affected by the resulting reduction in earnings. The inability for a large fraction of this demographic to participate in home ownership would also depress home values as demand withers relative to the supply. But perhaps most concerning is the potential for civil unrest.

Sociologists have often noted a strong correlation between high levels of unemployment among young adults, particularly young men, and the prevalence of war, gang activity and crime in general. Extreme disparities between different segments of society tend to lead to greater levels of discontent, particularly when that segment is disaffected youth. Given the high cost to society of such behavior, stepping up our investment in programs that facilitate education, re-training, job creation and placement would be money wisely spent.

Of course, technology is having a considerable impact on employment as well. Productivity gains due to computerization have been responsible for progressive job loss in some sectors for years. This is probably also one of the reasons employers have been slow to rehire during the current recovery. (Significant job growth has also resulted from the computer revolution. Whether this has led to a total net gain or net loss of jobs is beyond the scope of this post.) Computerized supply chain management, high-speed communications and other technology advances have made global capitalism possible and contributed to outsourcing, another reason for fewer jobs at the local level. Looking ahead, as systems become more intelligent and robotics become more adept, far more jobs are likely to disappear in the coming years.

It’s important too to remember this is not an exclusively American phenomena. Today, Japan’s young adults experience unemployment or underemployment at twice the national rate. In Europe, the disparity is even worse. A recent New York Times article on the lack of employment opportunities for young adults in southern Europe reported “an epic brain drain of college graduates” as they seek work elsewhere.

The economic balance of the world is shifting. The old powerhouses of the U.S., Europe and Japan are rapidly being outstripped by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), with the CIVETS (Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa) and other acronyms coming up fast. In nature, systems tend to adjust according to differentials in potential and the same is true of nations and economies. If we’re not careful, the confluence of demographic, technological and economic shifts could quickly lead to a future in which the Baby Boomers find themselves in a precarious and underfunded retirement.

The Inevitability of Invention


What do nuclear technology, embryonic stem cells, synthetic life and molecular nanotechnology have in common? For many people, these are strange and frightening concepts which conjure erroneous, often very dystopic visions of the future. They’re also technologies with enormous potential; they could seriously damage our world or they could be immensely beneficial. But perhaps most importantly, all of them are inevitable.

Change means risk, so through the ages, a part of our brain has evolved to avoid big changes. Because of this, some of us are inclined to want to stop progress all together or at least to slow it down. Some new technology or knowledge has the potential to be dangerous and so it’s argued that it should be proscribed, banned, halted. But of course, it’s never that simple. The fact is, when the time comes, we can’t stop a technology from coming into existence any more than we can stop a freight train with our bare hands.

In his new book, “What Technology Wants”, Kevin Kelly makes the argument that technology is autonomous and has its own distinct direction and momentum. He details (what many have long known or suspected) that most inventions are made not because of someone’s singular genius, but because the time is right.

Logarithms. Calculus. Oxygen. Evolution. Photography. Steamboats. Telegraphs. Telephones. Incandescent bulbs. Typewriters. Transistors. Nuclear bombs. All of these, and so very many more, were independently discovered or invented at nearly the same time in history. The prevalence of these “simultaneous inventions” strongly suggests that when the time is right, a particular technology will be thrust upon us, whether we want it or not.

This isn’t to say that any of this is predetermined; only that once a particular set of conditions, capabilities and knowledge is in place, the next technological step is probably going to occur. While we can’t say the flux capacitor will be invented on August 23, 2029, we can make a reasonable estimate of when certain technologies are likely to be feasible. This can aid us in preparing for their arrival and in our endeavors to ensure their impact is as beneficial as possible.

Efforts to ban knowledge and the technologies it makes possible are doomed to failure. Stop research in one country and it will almost certainly continue somewhere else. Drive it underground and it will still go on, only without adequate regulation and oversight. Prohibiting emerging technologies will ensure you fall behind the competition. It will probably also mean not having a say in how that technology is developed or what direction it ultimately takes.

New technology is inevitable. Each new addition is just waiting its turn on the timeline of possibility.

The Supercomputer Race

that China is barreling ahead in its development of supercomputers should give the U.S. considerable cause for concern. China has devoted significant resources to their supercomputer program in recent years, resulting in their ranking earlier this year at the number two spot on the TOP500 list. TOP500.org ranks the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers according to their performance on a dense system of linear equations. These tests yield a score based on the computer’s speed measured in double precision floating point operations per second (flops).

To give a little perspective: China didn’t have a single supercomputer ranked in the TOP500 until the mid-1990s. By June 2004, they had their first ranking ever in the top ten. In May 2010, their Nebulae system became the second fastest in the world with a performance of 1.271 petaflops. (A petaflop is 1015 floating point operations per second.) While the Chinese still only have one tenth the number of TOP500 supercomputers the U.S. has, they’ve been quickly catching up based on this metric as well. (Note: TOP500.org ranks the world’s most powerful, commercially available, non-distributed computer systems. There are numerous military and intelligence agency supercomputers in many countries not included in this list.)

China’s Nebulae system operates from the newly built National Supercomputing Centre in Shenzhen. This is also the site of some very recent and very extensive construction which will presumably house some very serious supercomputing power in the near future. “There clearly seems to be a strategic and strong commitment to supercomputing at the very highest level in China,” stated Erich Strohmaier, head of the Future Technology Group of the Computational Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The next major goal for supercomputers is the building of an exascale system sometime between 2018 and 2020. Such a system would be almost a thousand times faster than the Jaguar supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, currently the world’s fastest. The U.S. Exascale Initiative is committed to developing this technology which brings with it many different challenges of scale. At the same time, Europe and China have accelerated their investment in high-performance systems, with Europeans on a faster development track than the U.S. There are concerns the U.S. could be bypassed if it doesn’t sustain the investment to stay ahead.

This isn’t just about who has the highest ranking on a coveted list – it’s not a sporting event with a big fanfare for the winner. These computers are crucial for modeling, simulation, and large-scale analysis – everything from modeling complex weather systems to simulating biological processes. As our understanding of highly complex systems grows, the only way we’re going to be able to keep moving forward is with more and ever more computing power. At the same time, exascale computing is anticipated to be a highly disruptive technology, not only because of what it will be able to do, but because of the technologies that will be created in the course of developing it. Ultimately, these technologies will end up in all kinds of new products, not unlike what happened with the Apollo space program. Falling behind at this stage of the game would put the U.S. at a big disadvantage in almost every aspect of science and product development.

Just as concerning, I believe, is what this would mean for developing an AGI or artificial general intelligence. There’s been a lot of speculation by experts in the field of AI as to when (if ever) we might develop a human-level artificial intelligence. A recent survey of AI experts indicates we could realize human-level AI or greater in the next couple of decades. More than half of the experts surveyed thought this milestone would occur by mid-century. While there are many different avenues which may ultimately lead to an AGI, it’s a good bet that most of these will require some pretty serious computing power both for research and potentially for the substrate of the AGI itself.

It’s been speculated that there are considerable risks in developing a computer with human-level or greater intelligence, but there are a number of risks in not doing so as well. Whoever builds the first AGI will very probably realize an enormous competitive advantage, both economically and politically. Additionally, the world faces a growing number of existential threats which AGIs could play a critical role in helping us to avoid.

During this time of budget deficits and spending cuts, it would be very easy to decide that Big Science programs, such as the Exascale Initiative, aren’t as crucial to the nation’s well-being as they really are. This would be a grave mistake. The question isn’t how we can afford to commit ourselves to this research, but how we can afford not to.

(NOTE: Beginning with this entry, I’ll be cross-posting my blog at the World Future Society – www.wfs.org.)

WorldFuture 2010 Recap

has come to a close, but the ideas and inspirations it generated will carry on well into the future. Held last week in Boston, the annual futurist conference was often profound, consistently thought-provoking, and even occasionally unsettling. With nearly a hundred presentations, workshops, tours, seminars and keynote speeches, over 900 attendees from around the world had plenty to think and talk about. This year’s conference theme was “Sustainable Futures, Strategies and Technologies”, made all the more relevant given the economic and environmental challenges the world has recently had to face.

The sustainability theme ran through a broad range of fields and topics. A small sampling of these presentations included “Global Efforts to Develop Sustainable Public Health Initiatives”, “Achieving Low-Carbon Economic Growth”, and “Sustainability and Future Human Evolution.”

While sustainability was the official conference theme, accelerated growth could easily have been designated the unofficial one. Technology ethicist, Wendell Wallach addressed it in his opening speech, “Navigating the Future: Moral Machines, Techno Sapiens, and the Singularity”. Inventor and author, Ray Kurzweil revisited the concept repeatedly in his keynote presentation, “Building the Human Mind.” (Kurzweil mentioned exponential growth enough times that some attendees later joked about turning it into a drinking game.) Many of the other presenters also talked about how the nature of technological progress, especially the convergence of previously unrelated fields, is driving this acceleration. For me, it was truly exciting to be among so many people who readily accept and incorporate this important concept.

Given my own inclinations, my favorite sessions tended toward the more technical. Among these were “Technology Futures and Their Massive Potential Societal Impacts”, “Humans in 2020: The Next 10 Years of Personal Biotechnology”, “Challenges and Opportunities in Space Medicine” and “The Human-Computer Interface.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend every presentation I wanted to see. That’s the downside of a conference of this scale: there’s no way to do it all. But then on the plus side, there’s definitely something for everyone.

For me, the best thing about WorldFuture is that while the conference themes and presentations may change from year to year, there’s always a strong belief in the need to look ahead. The world faces many serious environmental, technical and social challenges in the coming decades. We’re going to need serious foresight and planning if we want to make it a positive, sustainable future that’s supportive of our citizens, our economies and our planet.

Why the Future Isn’t Evenly Distributed


How often do we hear people ask “Why isn’t the future here yet? Where are the gleaming cities connected by suspended walkways that look disturbingly like Habitrails? Where are the moon colonies and twinkling domed cities? Where are the robot servants dressed in 1940’s maid uniforms?” And most ubiquitously, “Where, oh where, are the flying cars?”

For nearly all of human history, there have been people who looked to the future with an almost utopic fervor. Too often they’ve foreseen it as an earthly nirvana, where dirt, crime and social ills fall away, unable to adhere to its highly polished non-stick surface.

But somehow it hasn’t seemed to work out that way. Most people’s perception of our present is that it’s pretty much like our past, save for a few new gadgets and a few different problems. The future hasn’t been the universally transformative event many had hoped for.

So what happened? I think author William Gibson succinctly answered the question when he said, “The future is already here. It just isn’t evenly distributed.” With that pithy observation, Gibson summed up the entire issue. It’s here, it just isn’t everywhere. Yet.

The reality is we’re already capable of some pretty amazing things, stuff that belonged to the future not all that long ago. We’ve put a dozen men on the moon and maintained a significant presence in space for nearly four decades. We can sequence a person’s complete genome. We’ve created humanoid robots that are improving by literal leaps and bounds. We even have flying cars. So why aren’t these wonders more common, more available? Well, economics is certainly one significant factor. Given enough effort, we probably could have had a moon colony by now, but what a price tag! Likewise, domed cities, yet to what real purpose? Flying cars? Even if you get past the costs, you’re in a vehicle where even a minor failure is catastrophic. Combine the potentially high death-to-accident ratio with regulatory issues, astronomical insurance costs, the nightmare of air traffic control and the fact few of us have the necessary three-dimensional spatial skills and it’s doubtful we’ll see too many of these babies zipping across our skies anytime soon.

But there are many developing technologies that will almost certainly be embraced in the not-so-distant future, first by the wealthy, then over time by the rest of us. Biotech wonder drugs tailored to our unique DNA. Space tourism. Nanocomputers embedded in our clothing and throughout the environment. Artificial organs which our bodies won’t reject because they’re created from our own cells. Robot assistants to aide us in various tasks, hopefully minus the maid uniforms.

Technology adoption is also a question of inertia. Civic. Social. Political. Psychological. We don’t want to tear out all of the buildings and transportation infrastructure every quarter century just because there are newer, perhaps better ways to construct them. So we end up with 21st Century buildings set amidst 20th Century structures, maybe with a number of 19th Century ones scattered around and so on. Which is a good thing because it gives us continuity and makes us feel better psychologically. While parts of our minds have come to crave change, for other aspects continuity equals security. (Or inversely, change equals threat.) So we carry on moving forward along our timeline, letting the new mix in with the old, hanging onto legacy systems, products and methods, either because of cost, convenience or sentimentality.

So how do we get to a more evenly distributed future? We give it time to merge with the present, at which point, of course, it’s not the future anymore. A little over a century ago, no one had electricity or a telephone. It took decades before a quarter of the populace had these scientific marvels. Cell phones took a fraction of that time to reach a similar level of market saturation. Now there are nearly five billion cell phones in the world, which is fast approaching one hundred percent saturation. Put another way, there are tribal nomads walking around today with far more computer processing power and digital storage in their pocket than was on board the Apollo command modules. That’s a very thoroughly distributed technology.

Today’s present has so many wonders that yesterday’s present couldn’t even dream of: vaccines that have all but eradicated many lethal illnesses; vehicles that hurl us around the globe quickly and in comfort; buildings that soar high into the clouds; instant communication with anyone, anywhere, anytime; the sum of human knowledge available at our fingertips.

Make no mistake, the future’s here and it will be with you shortly. But by that time, it will be your present overlaid onto your past. Which, of course, was once someone else’s future. So just be patient.

And don’t expect the skies to be filled with flying cars anytime soon.

Page 10 of 13« First...89101112...Last »
Like us on Facebook