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Artificial Intelligence: Inspiring Reality or Dystopian Future?


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This Friday, right under Tower Bridge in The Victorian Engine Rooms that used to power the iconic overpass, an Artificial Intelligence event discussing the future of these new technologies and their application took place.

Featuring the Creator of Channel 4’s Humans, Sam Vincent, the UK’s leading AI academics and presenter of Channel 5’s ‘The Gadget Show’, Georgie Barrat, the conference discussed some very interesting themes. Here's what we discovered.

People are wary of AI

This is may not be surprising, but it has emerged at the conference that the vast majority of people get their ideas about Artificial Intelligence from films and tv shows. “When people watch a movie or read a press piece about AI,”  said Jeremy L Wyatt, Professor of robotics & AI at the University of Birmingham, “they may start generalising.”

And in fact, apart from the obvious and more dystopian representations of AI, people could rightfully start asking  “When are the robots going take my job”, pointed Prof Wyatt.

“You need to explain to them why you shouldn’t’ be generalising and clarify what the real social implications of the phenomenon would be”.

Chris Feltam, executive from Intel Corporation’s Artificial Intelligence Group, added to the point by saying that “wary is fine but afraid is not.

I think you need to put right control in place and work with governments to make people trust these technologies but also ensure people who choose to opt-in privacy and give them a real visual of these technologies and not what they see from movies.”

But they know the difference


And it’s not all bad. According to Sabine Hauert, Assistant professor robotics at the University of Bristol and co-founder of, people’s perception of AI is partly doubting but also positive.

“As a member of the Royal Society Machine Learning Working Group, I have worked for 18 months on AI applications and studied people’s perception of AI. They are happy to have better diagnostics for example, they are happy to have assistance that helps in education.”

“[And] people are also very curious about these narratives.” Added Prof Wyatt. “ One thing that struck me for example was that when we took robots to the Science Museum a few years ago. We had 12.000 people in 4 days, we could barely cope.”

Robots won’t love us any soon


Apologies to all the fans of Humans here but despite Mr Vincent ardour in believing that we could sooner or later fall in love with androids, Prof Wyatt declared himself a bit “sceptical on the robot side of sex and love”.

[AI] can become very good at [specific tasks], but rubbish in everything else.” He said.

 “I think that  rather than thinking in terms of future tech, in terms of stories and androids, we are looking at building a lots of different systems with a little degree of autonomy that can perform very well specific tasks.

“Think about a rainforest, you find thousands of different species, all living very differently, all performing very specific tasks. That’s exactly what we’re building with AI, a kind of AI zoo, not an AI hue.

Prof Wyatt added that what he thinks it’s going to be very interesting is how people are going to relate and interface with AI.

“Would you be yourself with them? Treat them as living being or machines? It took us 50 years to invent computers and now we need to re-invent them all over again. Will we like the way they’ll start to operate without need of us or not? I think we’ll have to find ways that people will consider acceptable.”

Or kill us


As AI keeps evolving, ethical questions become more and more frequent. From an hypothetical Terminator scenario to more realistic self-driving cars, the debate about AI and ethics is active as ever.

Luckily, according to Mrs Hauert, the current results look promising.

“We are very lucky because our researchers have been gathering a lot of information about this topic, filling up a lot of reports.

“Couple of weeks ago in Texas there was this conference, which among other things discussed standards of ethics robots should follow and it did in a very advanced way.

“The study kept into considerations several and controversial cases, so this very encouraging.”

However, Mrs Hauert also called for caution. “[But] there’s still a lot of work to do, cause there are many issues we are still facing.

“The drastic one we discussed, [about self-driving accidents] but also more subtle ones like being careful to distribute this technology on a global scale and not just in some places, make sure this technology respects diversity, minorities, avoid biases and so on.

“And it’s up to the research community to answer these questions, together with the ethical community.”

But some AI applications are already making a difference


“I think AI is an opportunity to improve the way we live, the way we work, the way we explore new frontiers”, said Mrs Hauert .

Supporting this point of view, Mr Feltam talked about the “social good” and how AI applications are already playing an important role in certain aspects of society.

There’s an agency called National Center For Missing And Exploited Children [in the US] that’s using AI to find lost kids.

“More than 20.000 kids go missing in the US every year, and unfortunately a very high percentage of these are exploited. This agency looks at data, looks at information on a big scale and working together with law enforcement and analysts help finding and prosecuting people involved in abduction and so on.

It works with image recognition, among other things, and the result are very promising.”

Another practical example of this is represented by Mrs Hauert’s research.

It is based on swarms of nanobots for biomed apps and there are two types: the first one is about Nanosystems.

Trillions of nanoparticles work together towards cancer treatment – engineering their collective dynamics could prove instrumental in improving clinical outcome.

The second one is about Robotics, where thousands of robots are used to monitor their environment, study animal populations, or perform large-scale field work.

“It’s about making sense of a lot of data, large numbers, and computers can do that very well.” Said Mrs Hauert.

And their future look really promising


“There are three things I’m really excited about the future of AI,” said Prof Wyatt “Firstly, creative Automation.

“I’ve been working for the past 10 years creating algorithms that enable robots to work in uncertain and unfamiliar worlds and trying to reproduce at least 10% of humans deduction’s capabilities or even simple animals. That would really revolutionise what we can do with robots.

“Secondly, machine learning with speech recognition and translation. I don’t see any reason why in 10/15 years we shouldn’t be able to have perfect simultaneous translation.

“Finally,” concluded Prof Wyatt, “Robots in space.  They will have to be autonomous ones, since they’ll be in space long after we’ll have died. Imagine the possibilities.”

To respond to the final question then “what should AI development be about in the future?” Mrs Hauert’s answer was quite inspirational.

“I think it should be about making sure that this technology benefits all. And I think the way you do that is to provide access to resources to everybody.”

And what are your views on the matter? Do you have anything else to add the discussion? Let us know in the comments.

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