May 2018

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There is a very powerful scene near the climax of the film Blade Runner 2046. A synthetic man mourns the death of a holographic woman, wondering if their emotions for each other were even real. Two artificial people telling a story so human.

For those who are optimistic about the future of artificial intelligence it’s one of AI’s biggest selling points – the ability to enhance and even magnify humanity.

“It is my dearest hope,” says Eleanor “Nell” Watson, “that these emerging technologies will help us exalt the human in all of us.”

Watson – writer, engineer and entrepreneur¬ – was in Trinidad and Tobago to give a Distinguished Open Lecture at UWI St. Augustine on AI and education on April 6. Hosted by the UWI Open Lectures Committee, her presentation was an inspiring, and at times chilling, window into the future of both machine intelligence and mankind.

“Today there is an emerging form of computation and machine intelligence which is less about ones and zeros. It is getting away from the logical side of computing and into something much more intuitive, creative and organic,” Watson said to a packed audience at the Teaching and Learning Complex.

Students, staff and members of the public gasped at the sorcery-like examples of AI power during her presentation on “Artificial Intelligence and Educating for Tomorrow.” They giggled and fidgeted at unnerving and alien displays of machine creativity. They nodded to her hopeful message of what an AI-rich world could be.

“It’s a little bit scary and a little bit exciting,” she said. “And both of those emotions together are exhilaration. I want you to feel exhilarated.”

Watson attributes the advances in machine intelligence to three factors: an enormous increase in graphical computing power (a 25-time increase in the last five years alone), an explosion of data (in 2018 an estimated five Exabytes of data doubling every two minutes) and a massive increase in machine intelligence algorithms.

“Computation is moving to the edge,” she said, pointing specifically to Blockchain, the system created to act as the transaction ledger for Bitcoin. There is enough computational power in Blockchain “that we could probably emulate the human brain if we knew how,” she said.

These three factors have led to the development of creative machines.

“We are at the point where anything that the human brain does in one second or less can now be replicated by machines,” she said, “for example, recognising a person, transcribing between text, speech and language, making an aesthetic impression, whether something is beautiful or interesting.”

She showed examples of machine art, realistic paintings of birds and people, as well as haunting and strange organic-looking art and engineering. This was the most surprising aspect of her lecture. Discussions on AI and technology in general usually revolve around productivity, efficiency and wealth generation. Her talk was very different.

“I think in the 2020s and beyond we are going to see the emergence of technologies that augment our hearts and our souls and will help us to understand ourselves better and connect more with other people. To be able to see people in three dimensions instead of two,” she said in an interview afterwards.

Watson herself has incredible computing power. By age 24 she was teaching postgraduate computer science. Soon after she moved on to become a tech entrepreneur. Her resume is both lengthy and unique – including co-founding QuantaCorp (a company based around technology that can accurately size a person from a scan and two photos), and EthicsNet, a non-profit focused on developing “machine ethics” for AI.

On stage her clear and inspirational speaking style is magnetic, but one on one, it’s almost a barrier. She answers deep philosophical questions immediately, drawing from ancient history, Nietzsche and the most cutting edge technology, but struggles with questions like what she does for fun and the kind of music she likes. She seems consumed by very big ideas and questions. And understandably so, she grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, during the ethno-conflict in Northern Ireland.

“I experienced different bombings during my childhood,” she said. “It led me to have some very deep questions about what had happened to society for this to be occurring; the dynamics that can take different societies in different directions. And if that is the case how might one perhaps influence things towards peace, towards flourishing, towards greater friendships. That experience has been one that greatly affected me from a young age and I’m still puzzling it out.”

The fact that her focus is much bigger than AI was evident in the lecture. The entire second half dealt with education, specifically educating future generations in the rapidly changing world.

“Our schools are still trying to make us factory workers because they were established 150 to 200 years ago. To prepare our children for the world of tomorrow we need to be producing chefs not cooks. Cooks follow the recipe,” she said.

“I think education needs to change to reflect these changes. Perhaps we need to focus less on the Three Rs and more on the Three Cs – complex problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, and collaboration and empathy.”

She is not blind to the risks AI can pose – from both the machine side and the human side. Machine ethics is about using the appropriate data to engage AI in ethical deep learning.

“About 50% of the traffic on the Internet today is Bots. 30% of them are actually nasty Bots – spamming, scamming or impersonating human beings. So where is that going to take us? Are we going to have flesh vs. steel fights? You know I’d rather reframe it as something less antagonistic. I’d rather reframe it. AI is growing up like a young child but it’s up to us to teach it and raise it right.”

Teaching people however, may be more difficult. Speaking specifically about what AI can reveal about our own nature and its limitations, she is concerned that humanity may suffer “narcissistic wounds”. And people wounded in this way are dangerous.

“I do not know what is coming for machines but I do understand human nature and I hope we can find a way to soften the blow,” she says.

Nevertheless she remains cautiously optimistic. The latest entry on her blog is entitled “Pragmatic Optimism.” In particular, she is excited about the possibilities of the combination of machine intelligence, the computing power of Blockchain and machine ethics. “Cryptomics” as she calls them. With them, she believes we can achieve “a society more phenomenal than you can possibly imagine.”

“I am,” she says, “deeply nostalgic for a future which has yet to arrive.”