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Monday, January 01, 2018

No need to fear the rise of the machines | The Times - Comment

"Artificial intelligence will continue to augment humans, rather than replace them, and we could all enjoy the benefits" insist Matt Ridley, writes mainly about science, economics and the environment.


In the early 1960s, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there was a disagreement about what computers would achieve. One faction, led by John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky, championed “artificial intelligence”, believing that computers would gradually replace human beings. The other, led by Norbert Wiener and JCR Licklider, the man who oversaw the creation of the internet’s precursor, championed “human-computer symbiosis”, believing that computers would augment human beings.

“Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in co-operative interaction between men and electronic computers,” wrote Licklider in a crucial essay published in 1960. “It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership.” In his arresting analogy, computers would be to us as fig wasps are to fig trees: symbiotic partners.

Looking around us, Licklider was right. Augmentation rather than replacement triumphed, says the historian Walter Isaacson in his 2014 book The Innovators, especially after it was taken up by the hackers, hobbyists and hippies of the west coast. By 1968, at what came to be known as the “Mother of All Demos”, the visionaries Stewart Brand and Douglas Engelbart were demonstrating to an audience in San Francisco such symbiotic concepts as the cursor and the mouse.

We are in the middle of a hype cycle about AI and I think Licklider will be right this time too. The AIs we use, though we do not call them that, are augmenting, not replacing, people. My smartphone recognises the faces of my family, adds to maps the names of restaurants or theatres it spots in my diary, re-routes me around traffic congestion: it is my symbiont, not my nemesis. Note that AI is assisting the lives of consumers even more than those of producers.

The same symbiosis is true of the AIs coming in the near future. At a Microsoft lab I have watched experimental systems do in seconds that which takes a radiologist hours: delineate an organ on a series of scans, preparatory to cancer treatment. At Google’s Deepmind in London, algorithms are preparing to save the search engine company a fortune in energy bills by rethinking its electricity distribution system.

What about driverless cars? 

Source: The Times