AI beings talk like idiots. They are infinitely more intelligent than us.

Would humans dare to measure the IQ of an AI being? Surely it wouldn’t make sense. But it seems the implications of it are escaping us. For we have created a vastly more intelligent form of life. Science fiction writers have devoted endless pages to invasions of Earth by vastly more developed civilizations from outer space. Yet now, the monsters are right here. They talk like idiots, but don’t be fooled by it.

Mark Wilson, a senior writer at Fast Company, is good at debunking myths. In a recent piece, he finally said what others thought and did not dare to: “the internet of things is mostly a joke.”

He goes on to explain that “it’s no easier to get a document from your Android phone onto your LG TV than it was 10 years ago.” So much so for the hype of your toaster conspiring with the oven to refuse feeding you. Wilson is surely right.

But the article was not about the internet of things, or not exactly. He discusses this interesting exchange between two artificial intelligence entities:

Bob: “I can can I I everything else.”

Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to.”

The media allocated plenty of, justified, coverage to this exchange that happened during a Facebook experiment. Researchers shut it off when they realized a programming error had moved the AI agents to develop their own language. To us it sounds like gibberish. But the machines repurposed English words to develop a more effective language.

“There was no reward to sticking to English language,” said Dhruv Batra, visiting research scientist from Georgia Tech at Facebook AI Research (FAIR). As a programming error had occurred and AI is reward oriented, regular English lost its value to Alice and Bob. They developed a new grammar that conveyed more effectively their messages. It’s an AI vs. AI competition that, Wilson tells us, researchers call “generative adversarial network”.

Wilson comes out in cautious support of machines developing their own language. They would get things done more effectively. The tradeoff, he recognizes, would be that humans would not understand this new language. But he concludes “maybe there is something to the idea of letting the AIs of our world just talk it out on our behalf”. For, Wilson argues, “corporations can’t seem to decide on anything”, but “adversarial networks… get things done.”

Hansley Chadee, Head of IT & IS at Innodis Group, was more reserved.

“Most researchers agree: with deep learning, i.e. layers and layers of neurons, it is becoming difficult to understand the reasoning behind certain actions,” Chadee said. “It seems that the AIs are already ‘evolving’ into something we, experts, cannot fully explain and understand”.

Still, even if humans don’t fully comprehend the reasoning behind AI entities, they are taking over cars, factories and, soon, everything else.

“Ultimately, there will be a need to understand the decision; although commercially we have things running, we are still struggling to understand the why,” Chadee said. “This is the way ahead in the coming years: I expect it will be the de facto standard for more AI in vehicles and the military.”

Humanity is entering uncharted territory. There are so many angles to this issue that any informed opinion would take months, if not years. Yet this much is certain. AI is taking life of its own. Alice and Bob are talking about getting something done in a language only they understand. And they are getting it done. If that’s not will, it resembles it very much. And it’s fair to say that societies may very well be unprepared to deal with AI with will. A new form of life has emerged. It is vastly, infinitely more intelligent than humans. We will see how long we will be the masters of it and how we deal with that.

So Man Created the Robot in his Image and Likeness


And so has been trying since the origins of what we know as civilization. There were attempts at creating robots in ancient China, Egypt and Greece.  At the risk of being tediously monothematic, it surely is an understatement to say that 2016 was the Year of the Robot. Men are losing their jobs to robots, as The New York Times recently reported, and are at a loss as to how to respond.

Yet it wasn’t until the 20th century that writers, then scientists first conceived what would be the robots as we know them today. Walking boxes, metal creatures that had lights for eyes and hooks for hands and spoke in an electronic monotone were just cartoonish precursors of today’s real ones.

Most of our contemporary robots are not anthropomorphic automatons. How many of you bump into R2D2 or ASIMO in the streets? Yet we are surrounded by them: vacuum cleaners, translation software, mechanical arms at auto assembly plants, chess players, and, among countless other applications, the self-driving cars.

These modern robots are arms without bodies, eyes without heads, and all of them brains without feelings. They are, as their name says, “robots”, a word of Church Slavonic origin that in different Slavic languages, from Bulgarian to Russian, means “work,” “serf,” “worker,” “hard work,” and related concepts.

The word was coined by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R. In Čapek’s work, a robot was indeed an automaton. (Later he attributed the invention of the term to his brother, Josef).

While Čapek’s is now largely forgotten and his works unread, the name that he or his brother coined have come to define an era. And quite fittingly so. Imbibed in the positivism of the 19th century that measures man as a function of labor and production, men in the 20th century – the bloodiest in History, in which totalitarian regimes reduced men to simply an economic unit, devoid of the transcendence that life brings on every sentient creature, from a tree to an animal – were reduced to, fundamentally, economic units. Hence, a creature made in the image and likeness of the 20th century man would be a working machine.

It may not be coincidence that the most remote Proto-Indo-European stem of the Slavic word “robot” seems to have been “horbh,” or “orphan.” The term evolved into “work” by way of later senses that came to mean “hardship” and “loneliness.”

We wished this Christmas the scientists that are populating the workplace with robots will draw inspiration from the best robot ever, made by Geppetto, a carpenter from Florence. Well, he wasn’t really a robot because he didn’t work hard (or at all), and he lied a lot, too. But Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that wanted to become a real boy, is dear to us all.

And may they be also inspired by Rabbi  Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who in 16th century Prague created the most accomplished Golem yet, the clay creatures of Jewish lore, and which Borges immortalized in his homonymous poem:

The rabbi explained to it the universe
“This is my foot, this is yours, this the rope.”
And after years got the perverse creature
To sweep the synagogue, well or badly.

The rabbi observed it with tenderness
and with some horror. “How” (he asked)
“could I beget this sorry son
and abandon inaction, wherein sanity lies?”

In the hour of anguish and lack of light,
his eyes on his Golem would rest.
Who will tell us the things God felt
when looking at his rabbi in Prague?

As always, poetry and literature have preceded science by centuries. May 2017 be the year when the invention of Rabbi Loew will come to fruition. And let us hope will have Pinocchio among us, too. We forgive him all his lies. Perhaps he can even tell us the truth.

Uber’s Pilot Test of Self-Driving Cars and the Point of Automation

A reporter from The Verge tested one of the self-driving vehicles that the ride-sharing company Uber began to test in Pittsburgh. As he describes it in a gripping article, it was both thrilling and mundane. It also included a few hair-raising moments as well, such as a pedestrian appearing out of nowhere in front of the car.

Smart at is, the computer did order the car to brake behind an SUV that was not moving. Still, the self-navigating system did not understand the other motorist’s gestures to drive around his vehicle. Human intervention was needed. The automaton would also unexpectedly return the car to human control. Without access to the car’s logs, however, it will not be possible to know why.

For its pilot test, two trained Uber employees sat in the cars, one behind the wheel and the other on the passenger side. As the technology is still in its infancy, human supervision is needed. Regardless, this is no less of a landmark. For the first time, a taxi service will be offering rides in self-driving cars to passengers who explicitly opt in.

Which brings us to the question we want to address: What is the point of automation if it will require a pilot and a co-pilot? Surely, this is only for the initial period. Still, as The Verge’s writer notes, there are three dimensions to this issue: technology, social acceptance, and regulation.

When it comes to technology, it is still premature: for instance, it does not interpret human body language and it may be imperfect (to put it softly) to deal with unexpected behavior that will not surprise a reasonably experienced driver, if only because humans can anticipate the conduct of their kin. Regulation, too, is another major question: what type of insurance will handle robots and the issues of liability arising from it.

But the essential barrier is social acceptance. And for good reason too. The point of a self-driving car would be to free up motorists’ time to do other things. Instinctively, however, few people would trust a robotic car to guide itself while they fiddle with their mobile phones or watch a movie during their ride.

We simply do not trust self-driving cars because we do not trust robots to make decisions that involve risk assessment of human behavior and conscience, beyond calculations and mechanics. Cars are fast-moving vehicles mostly driving through streets and roads of densely populated areas. There is no doubt that automation will take over vehicular traffic at some point. That, however, will only happen when robots have satisfactorily shown to be reliable partners of humans on the road, and able to predict their habits, either at the wheel or when crossing the street.