You, like me, must be reading and listening to famous and influential people speaking and writing about artificial intelligence (AI). You, like me, must be diving into research and studies to understand this conveyor belt of information, algorithms and statistics that just about everything spits at you the moment you ask what time is it? You like me, could be wondering where on earth is all this leading to with so much “expertise,” little domain knowledge, zero start-up experience and in most cases, no money – why are people talking nineteen to the dozen? Twenty years ago, it was death by powerpoint. Today it is cacophony by stupid people talking about AI.
This column has two points to make. The first is a short one – stupid people are dangerous. The second is about what I have learnt about AI as an end user and why I believe understanding an application does not make you an expert. If that were the case, we should all be on Cloud nine – the pun is intended.
Point one. An all-time favourite, there’s a theory of stupidity and there are fundamental laws that define stupid people who are very dangerous. The theory was propounded by Carlo Maria Cipolla, an Italian economic historian from Pavia (Italy) in the last century and the more you read it, the more you’re convinced how truly brilliant he was. What did Cipolla say? Briefly that human being can be divided into four categories, all nations, religions, practices and levels of education confounded. To briefly sum up, the first were saints, altruists par excellence. The second was robbers whose only interest was self – interest, their money and their greed. The third category comprised neither altruists nor robbers, but people whose actions helped themselves and societies. The fourth was the stupid who not only destroyed themselves but everything around them.
This how Wikipedia sums up Ciplolla’s stupid people and societies’ confusion. To quote directly:
* Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation
* The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person
* A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while deriving no gain and possibly incurring losses
* Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places under any circumstances to deal with and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake
* A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person
What, you may wonder, does point one has to with my second point about AI? Plenty. Seriously plenty. My first encounter with machines that learn/AI was with Watson who forgets nothing. Watson can talk back to you, interpret, read and recommend things to you before you can say, Watson. Five years ago International Business Machines (IBM) where Watson was born said the software system’s first commercial application would be managing lung cancer treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre in New York. Today 90 per cent of nurses in the field use Watson for guidance. Not all patients are comfortable, but patient literacy is an entire area that needs work. Intelligent human beings have to get involved here.
Currently a student in many top universities around the world, Watson reads 25 million papers in a few days – imagine what that means for medical diagnoses and legal cases, foreign policy and defence strategies? Imagine the beauty and power of what intelligent people have created and what stupid people can destroy?
From Davos (Switzerland) to Delhi, Bali to Washington en passant par Kremlin, Beijing and Brussels, not a day goes by without someone speaking about AI. Most are end-users and for them it is a buzzword to be part of the party. Engineers are rarely at important gatherings, politicians speak everywhere and all the time, policy makers regularly fall between two stools because data gathering is opaque and law enforcement is weak and media tries to make sense of it all. Some of us succeed, but most of us do not.
I was born a few months after the then Soviet Union sent Sputnik into space pushing the United States (US) to play catch up. That was some ten years after guns and tanks had fallen silent in World War 11 – 40 million people had died in Europe because of one man’s madness. Atomic bombs annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Parts of the world were burnt to ashes.
The week that just went by was all about Davos. The world was burning, it was all coming apart, there are no solutions said the doomsayers primarily responsible for creating the doom and gloom. The Fourth Industrial revolution will take jobs away said all even as I wondered where that would lead India (now furiously setting up committees and commissions which are anathema to innovation) which was between the First (Agriculture) and Second (Manufacturing) Industrial Revolution and growing into the third – Technology. Were we as a country ready for the Fourth that would be Cyber and AI or is there even something called being ready? And let us not forget that it was Russian President Vladimir Putin who said first countries that dominate AI would dominate the world. Coming from Sputnik country that is more than just an observation.
I am attracted to technology not only because I am alive because of advances in medicine and technology, but also because I see, like you, how smart people can take a problem, understand its entire dimensions and spread the knowledge for societies to grow equitably. Technology can be truly empowering. An AI story coming out of Finland had all my attention. No match for China, the US or Russia the small Scandinavian country which has a long border with Russia is teaching the basics of AI to 55, 000 people or one per cent of the population. More than 250 companies have reportedly pledged to train part or all of their work force. Teemu Roos, a professor of computer science at the University of Helsinki and the brain behind has been quoted as saying he wants people to have enough knowledge to vote on how the country should invest in and regulate AI.
While the European Union (EU) is lagging behind in research, it has constructed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that hopefully will serve as a template for other countries to follow. Satya Nadella of Microsoft and Apple’s Tim Cook are calling for regulation that does not unintentionally fail to curb innovation or be unprepared to mitigate the consequences of serious mishaps. In other words, they are after intelligent regulation that will spur markets as well as trust. Cyber wars are on everyone’s lips, but other than the Finnish project, GDPR, and few other initiatives, confidence-building measures are slow in coming.
In a scathing message to the one percent of the world represented at Davos, Anand Giridharidass, noted the author of Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Challenging the World said the summiteers (plutocrats) were responsible for bringing the world to its current state. “But we don’t believe you anymore. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg used to be a synonym for optimism. Now he’s a catastrophic joke – a boy-man who pledged to create community while destroying democracy, who said he’d end all diseases even as his company became a plague.” Giridharidas minces no words and goes on to accuse leaders of enabling threatening nationalism and stifling talent. “As the reformers craft societies in which all can flourish, your task is simple: stay out of their way.” His piece appeared in a Special Davos Issue of TIME magazine.
Stupid people, not AI is dangerous. They are all set to turn the world into a barren desert devoid of humanity and empathy. The pushback must begin, now. And we all have a role to play in it.