Disclaimer: The opinions of the columnists are their own and not necessarily those of their employer.
C. Warren Axelrod

Lip Reading Computers … Here Comes HAL

When I read about lip-reading computers in an article by Prachi Patel with the intriguing title “Machines Just Got Better at Lip Reading” available at http://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/computing/software/machines-just-got-better-at-lip-reading , I was immediately reminded of HAL 9000, the compute running the space ship in the Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If you recall, HAL was able to read lips in a conversation between Dave and Frank as you can see from the chilling video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwBmPiOmEGQ

Fantasy is becoming reality—and at an accelerating pace. Artificial intelligence is the new hot area after a hiatus of a couple of decades. There are those, such as Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, who are concerned that, if not managed properly, AI could be damaging to humanity. Most others seem to be gob smacked by the evolving capabilities.

Like virtually anything else, technologies can be used for good or evil, and the determination of what is good and what is evil is highly subjective depending on who you are, where you come from and the environment in which you live.

The advances of technology are relentless and unstoppable. The key is how to harness them for good purposes. Hawking coins the phrase “beneficial intelligence” to carve out the positive aspects of AI, as described in the October 2015 article “Stephen Hawking: ‘The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence’” by Devindra Hardawar available at http://www.engadget.com/2015/10/09/stephen-hawking-ai-reddit-ama/

However, as with all these advances, it’s still a matter of who is making the calls versus who has control. In an “On Technology” column about chatbots by Jenna Wortham “Silicon Valley has fallen in love with chatbots, but so far they are hardly impressive. Is it the industry’s fault, or is it ours?” in The New York Times Magazine of April 24, 2016, the reporter concludes with the following:

“A bot, like any other piece of software, is only as good as its makers’ imagination. Technologies embody the values—and the biases and prejudices—of the society that incubates them, and if we can’t imagine the future we want, then neither can our creations.”

Wortham’s quote suggests what the problem is, but somewhat misses the point that technologies embody the culture of a relatively small group of techies who are most interested in promoting, for commercial benefit, their latest gee-whiz gizmos and are either not particularly interested in, or couldn’t care less about the social and political impact of what they produce. As Wortham does mention, the goal of major players, such as Facebook, is to increase the stickiness of their websites so that visitors stay as long as possible.

The underlying question is whether society wants a small group to make self-serving technology decisions for the masses and, if not, how might society-at-large influence these decisions. Unfortunately many legislators and politicians do not have a working understanding of the technologies in question, which goes to explain why the people don’t have much of a say.

If you are interested in reading about why Congress appears to be so inept when it comes to technology, I suggest that you read Kim Zetter’s excellent April 21, 2016 piece “Of Course Congress Is Clueless About Tech—It Killed Its Tutor” available at https://www.wired.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/472006528.jpg You will learn that the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which was a major source of technical information, was “axed unceremoniously two decades ago in a round of budget cuts.” The negative consequences of this decision are huge and continue to this day … and beyond.

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