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Robots rock, but they’re not the AI you’re looking for

  • By Dr Austin Tanney – Head of AI at Kainos.

    I have a bit of a pet peeve. AI is something that gets reported about a lot in the press. This is a good thing and in no way the source of my pet peeve. AI is undoubtedly one of the most important technological development of the modern era, so if it weren't getting reported in the press a lot I’d be worried.

    Of course, not all of the reporting is good. When luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Vladimir Putin make terrifying statements about summoning demons and taking over the world, it's kind of inevitable that clickbait headlines will more or less write themselves (or maybe the AIs will write them).

    None of this bothers me. AI is important, it needs to be discussed, it needs to be debated. The public need to be educated about what AI is and what it is not. It's important that there is a general awareness of the potential risks and rewards that can come as we enter the age of AI. This is all good.

    What bothers me is that when articles are published about AI they are invariably accompanied by pictures of robots. I've written plenty of articles that have been published and the editor has often chosen to put a lovely picture of a robot right there in the header.

    Don't get me wrong, I love the robots too. I grew up on Star Wars and R2D2 is awesome and any picture of a robot is preferable to seeing my face beside the headline. But the problem is that it sends the wrong message. AI is not robots.

    For many of us science fiction was our first introduction to both robots and to AI. In sci fi movies the two were interlinked, the robots were intelligent creatures that worked alongside humans (or actively tried to destroy them). These robots of our childhood were cute/ useful/ deadly things that exhibited a form of intelligence that was human or often superhuman in their intelligence.

    In reality, and I am sorry if this bursts your bubble, robots are dumb systems programmed to routinely carry out mundane routine tasks that used to be carried out by humans but really didn't require any level of human intelligence. They are fantastic at doing things that humans actually aren't really that good at, i.e. doing the same thing over and over again without error, without tiring, without making mistakes.

    AI is not robots. Even when we look at the terrifying creations of Boston Dynamics who seem to be leading the world in developing machines that look like something from a dystopian sci fi movie, these machines are not intelligent. They don't actually really use AI. They are simply well programmed machines carrying out explicitly programmed tasks.

    This is where actual AI is different. AI is where we develop systems that are able to produce an outcome without being explicitly programmed to do so. This happens through analysing data, identifying patterns in that data and acting based on that data. This is very different from traditional computer programming or software development, but nonetheless it is still software. Code. Math.

    It doesn’t take much effort to find out a little bit more about AI generally, just google it and you will find several million articles, many of which will have fantastic pictures of robots. The thing is though, what we are currently doing with AI is no longer necessarily headline news. We have entered the “age of implementation” of AI and increasingly we are using AI to optimise backend processes, streamline workflows, and simplify how information is displayed to users and to personalise content.

    Our phones use AI to unlock by scanning and recognising our faces. We have reached a point where AI is actually becoming a routine tool that we are increasingly using to do standard routine stuff that actually does need a level of human intelligence, but that is not really rewarding or enjoyable work. Where robots really made an impact was in replacing low value human labour. Where AI is starting to make an impact is in low value human cognition. We are using AI to carry out tasks that no one really wants to do, but we haven't developed software smart enough to do it for us. Until now.

    This year I will be hosting the AI session at Beltech for the third year in a row. This year a lot of the focus will not be on the exciting headline grabbing but ultimately useless examples of AI applications but more on the ways that AI can just be used as a tool to build better services, products and businesses.

    Austin will be curating the AI session at this year’s BelTech 2019 ( event which takes place on 11th and 12th April in Titanic Belfast. Find BelTech on Twitter, @BelTech2019 or #BelTech2019

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