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Exploring the Uncharted World of Artificial Intelligence

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The market is a massive, irrational, and fluid amalgamation of all information available in the public domain, at least according to the efficient market hypothesis. The famous quote, that “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent,” holds significance, because it illustrates the perpetual struggle that we face in trying to understand its inner machinations.

The market is both a byproduct of human innovation, as well as a microcosm of the world we live in. Just as we can’t definitively know how the market will move, we can’t definitively know how the choices we make will affect the world we live in. Therein lays the real challenge, in which we take everything we think we know and make an analytical decision, because afterward all that is left is to wait and see if it was the right call.

I understand that this is a painfully broad and overly abstract idea to consider, but I make this point because I believe it is applicable to the dilemmas we have yet to face. As we continue our venture into technological innovation, we will need to consider the “next big thing,” and I think that is the idea of artificial intelligence (AI).  

Technology is meant to be an extension of the human body and its capabilities, but AI is essentially an attempt at fully replicating rather than enhancing those functions. What was once solely the product of science fiction is on track to eventually become a reality, and with that comes a need to carefully consider what that world will look like.

Let’s begin, shall we?

What is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial intelligence has many broad definitions, but essentially refers to concept of machines and virtual programs that can function in a manner that replicates human mannerisms, such as speech recognition, visual processing, and so on. Using massive databases, companies have already created AI that is already capable of assisting us in various facets of life.

Although current AI is far more rudimentary than fictional robots such as the evil sentient HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is already having a noticeable impact on the way we use technology.

Current Applications of AI

Applications such as Netflix (NFLX - Free Report) , Pandora , and Spotify have programmed AI algorithms that use your past preferences to recommend new content to you. Apple’s (AAPL - Free Report) Siri, Microsoft’s (MSFT - Free Report) Cortana, and Amazon’s (AMZN - Free Report) Alexa virtual personal assistants are all examples of AI that store and process information in order to respond to users’ needs. There are numerous other applications of AI as well, such as Tesla’s (TSLA) self-driving car technology (Which still lacks refinement) and video game AI that learn and respond to stimuli.

Although it may be difficult to believe, AI is already better than us at some things. IBM’s (IBM - Free Report) supercomputer Watson famously competed on the popular quiz show Jeopardy in 2011 and beat two of the best players in the show’s history.

Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL - Free Report) subsidiary DeepMind’s AlphaGo program beat Go world champion Lee Sedol 4 times out of 5 back in March, an unprecedented victory. Go, a board game with over 2,500 years of history and more potential moves than there are atoms in the galaxy is clearly not a simple game, and the victory has raised eyebrows. Considering the game of Go is exponentially more complicated than chess, a game that AI has already mastered, this victory demonstrated that AI has become significantly more intelligent, and is only continuing to advance.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and AI Lab (CSAIL) created a program that helps nurses schedule tasks on the labor floor. It learned by watching the actions that human schedulers made, and comparing them to all the possible actions that are not made at each point in time. During the course of the testing phase, nursing staff would go on to accept ninety percent of the recommendations that the program gave.

Another program at the CSAIL watches thousands of hours of television and learns to predict interactions between people (such as a handshake, hug, high five, or kiss) before it happens. The program is by no means perfect and currently only correctly predicts interactions 43 percent of time according to the report. However, even this is an improvement over the current 36 percent prediction rate of previous programs.

These examples prove that the foundation for AI has already been set, and with time it can only continue to advance. They also set a potentially dangerous precedent for the labor market, which could see a large portion of human jobs replaced entirely by AI.

The Capacity for Disruption

One of the biggest fears associated with AI is its potential to replace human jobs. According to research from consulting firm McKinsey and Co., “as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” That is quite the daunting figure, and illustrates the potential for a dramatic change to the labor market in the near future.

Another, more conservative estimate comes from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which predicts that the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” has the potential to cause a net loss of over 5 million jobs in 15 major developed and emerging economies by as soon as 2020. This includes countries such as Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.

The first major change to the labor market came with the agricultural revolution, in which humanity gained the ability to harvest a surplus of crops, resulting in social stratification between those who controlled large amounts of resources and those who didn’t. Thanks to the technological advances that altered the farming world, people were able to specialize in other fields. With that specialization came multiple industrial revolutions, as well as our propulsion into the current “Information Age.”

In terms of what will happen if/when AI replaces jobs, the easy answer is that no one really knows. We have already seen ATMs replace bank tellers, self-checkout lines in grocery stores replace cashiers, and booking websites like Expedia (EXPE - Free Report) replace travel agents.

The likeliest outcome would be an increased burden on the lower class to be retrained and integrated into higher level positions. This is a burden that neither they nor society may be able to bear, and is something that we are already beginning to see now.

Should a small few maintain a monopoly on an AI-centered method of production, we could see a repeat of history and a painful further widening of the gap between the 1% and the rest of the population.

The Ethical Dilemma in Creating Sentient AI

Considering what we have created so far, I don’t think it is a complete leap of faith to think that the time will come during which we gain the capability to create sentient AI (sentient meaning the ability to perceive or feel things). Of course, there is no way of knowing how or when that would occur, but I do think the ethical element of this prospect is worth considering.

To create something that is capable of operating on the same level as a human being would be analogous to parenthood, and in the eyes of some perhaps something more. Although the idea of creating something of this caliber may be an overextension of our position, I think we should do it anyway. Perhaps after doing so we would realize it was a mistake, but I believe we have an obligation to ourselves to continue to challenge our limits, no matter how potentially unsettling it may be.

When the time comes, our ethical obligation will be to responsibly decide how to treat and handle sentient AI. So long as we do not succumb to our fear of the unknown, perhaps this venture would reshape the way in which we define what it means to live. I believe that there is merit in selectively throwing aside that fear, because it otherwise has as much of a capacity to hold us back as it does to keep us around.

Bottom Line

With increased reliance on technology, we find ourselves at the precipice of a new chapter in human history. As wonderful as AI may seem, I believe it has as much of a potential to destroy us as it does to propel us into a brighter tomorrow.

Whenever discussing the future, I like to look back at the (potentially fake) quote from Charles Holland Duell, commissioner of the U.S. patent office in 1899. He supposedly stated that “Everything that can be invented has been invented,” and boy do we know how wrong that was. At the end of the day, there is no way for us to be able to gauge what the world of tomorrow will truly look like, and there is nothing to change that.

We choose to believe that our capacity for empathy is what separates us from animals, but should AI gain the capacity to replicate that same emotional sentiment, it would serve as a basis to re-evaluate our identity. I can only hope that should that time come, we are open enough to evolve alongside that notion and continue to challenge the supposed limits of nature.


Are you more excited or concerned about the future prospects of AI?


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