Keeping it real with artificial intelligence

Thursday, December 13, 2018

By Rose Simone. This is an excerpt of an article that was taken from the Daily Bulletin and was originally published on Waterloo Stories.

The power of artificial intelligence is already permeating throughout our work and social lives.

But as artificial intelligence (AI) systems “learn” from millions of interactions or case examples, it also has the potential to be disruptive, said experts from the University of Waterloo during a panel discussion on ‘Keeping the Human in AI’ at the Kitchener Public Library last week.

The professors with expertise in economics, philosophy, and human-computer interaction discussed the implications and how to mitigate against the dangers at the talk and during interviews.

How will AI impact the economy?

Like the steam engine, electricity or semiconductors, AI is a “general purpose technology,” with far-reaching implications, says Joel Blit, a Waterloo economics professor who co-wrote a policy paper on Automation and the Future of Work for the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

“I absolutely think this is going to change the way our economy is organized, the way jobs are done and who gets what wages,” Blit says.

Along with the huge increase in computing power, our digital era also generates massive data sets that the AI systems learn from. These data sets are now being used to teach AI systems how to recognize faces, understand natural language, and even play chess. They can assess political inclinations from Facebook posts, spot criminals from faces in a crowd or guess a person’s emotional state from their facial expressions.

Blit says in many cases, the AI will automate certain tasks, but not completely replace the job. An AI can help spot a tumor on a radiology image, but human radiologists need to verify that diagnosis and consult with physicians about the results and treatment options.

But overall, as with any type of automation, it allows jobs to be done with fewer people. Blit points out that a new company that emerges on the AI landscape might generate billions of dollars in value and revenue, but only have 50 employees. That has already been true of a number of companies in the digital era, such as YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp, all of which were sold for billions but only had handfuls of employees to share in that wealth.

In the long run, AI can improve efficiency and bring down costs of some types of services, which in turn can increase the demand for those services. Also, as with any technological revolution, new applications for the tools will be found that will create jobs, Blit says.

The problem is that there is a transition period, Blit adds. He gives the example of the Industrial Revolution that started around 1770 but it took about 50 years before overall wages started steadily rising.

But the bigger worry is the potential for economic disruption leading to greater inequality and political instability, Blit says.

He stresses the need for policies that encourage entrepreneurship and gear education toward fostering leadership, empathy, communication, creativity and critical thinking skills so that young people will be flexible and ready for the jobs that will still exist in the future.

When AI replicates human bias

Yet economic disruption is just one type of impact that AI will have. Other experts, such as Carla Fehr, a Waterloo feminist philosopher and the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy, says it can also amplify prejudices and biases in a society.

Fehr says even though people think of machines as objective, the data sets that train AI systems can have built-in biases. “Human beings are really bad at recognizing their own biases,” she adds.

She gives the example of the work of Joy Buolamwini, an African-American computer scientist at the M.I.T. Media Lab who experienced the bias of facial recognition software firsthand.

Read the rest of the article on Waterloo Stories.

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