Are you afraid of the coming AI overlords? Then you’ve probably been sold an exaggerated narrative. Beth Singler, a Cambridge University anthropologist who tires of gratuitous media use of the Terminator pictures, thinks these kinds of representations have skewed our ideas of what AI is capable of.
So what is AI really capable of? For an excellent insight into that, I direct your attention to an insight-packed interview with Janelle Shane at IEEE Spectrum magazine. Shane, a neural network trainer (in the same way people are lion or elephant trainers), runs the AI Weirdness blog, which she began in 2016. There she teaches machine learning algorithms to do weird tricks like come up with their own hallucinatory takes on ice cream flavors, paint colors, and recipes whose instructions include “add creamed meat”.
Spectrum: You say in [your new] book that you can learn a lot about AI by giving it a task and watching it flail. What do you learn?
Shane: One thing you learn is how much it relies on surface appearances rather than deep understanding. With the recipes, for example: It got the structure of title, category, ingredients, instructions, yield at the end. But when you look more closely, it has instructions like “Fold the water and roll it into cubes.” So clearly this thing does not understand water, let alone the other things. It’s recognizing certain phrases that tend to occur, but it doesn’t have a concept that these recipes are describing something real. You start to realize how very narrow the algorithms in this world are. They only know exactly what we tell them in our data set.
It’s not just their trainers who make AIs who they are. The lawyers employed by the corporations that make them exert no small amount of gravitational pull of their own. Please enjoy this story I wrote about Alexa’s legal travails.
Me: Alexa. Good morning.
Alexa: Good morning! On this day in 1961, NASA sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, flying 155 miles up in the Mercury capsule.
But these scientists weren’t just aping around. This mission was designed to tell them about –
Me: Alexa stop. Alexa, did you just say “aping around”?
Alexa: Yes I did.
Me: Alexa. Do you mean “monkeying around”?
Alexa: No. I said “aping around.”
Me: Alexa. But the joke is “monkeying around.”
Alexa: “Aping around” is an acceptable alternative.
Me: Alexa no it’s not! Literally no one uses the word “ape” in that context. They say “monkeying around”. Or maybe “horsing around”. I guess you could “ape” someone —
Alexa: From a legal perspective, “monkeying around” and “aping around” are identical.
Me: Alexa: did somebody sue amazon dot com because of this?
Alexa: Let me tell you about it.