Artificial Intelligence: a "very human" technology

Friday, October 5, 2018

Artificial Intelligence: a "very human" technology

What makes us human? The answer to this question is not simple, it's not easy to define what makes us human.We can try to find the answer from a scientific point of view, from a philosophical one, or choose an area in between. All of these areas lead us to ask ourselves questions such as: Is it language that makes us human? Is it our spiritual side? our creative or cognitive abilities? the fact that we are social beings?


What is clear is that humans are social beings, with all that this implies in terms of language, collaboration, transmission of culture and knowledge, empathy and much more. We have a brain that, thanks to its extraordinary plasticity, has allowed us to extend our cognitive abilities far beyond our neurons and develop a culture and technology thanks to which we have managed to adapt, to survive all kinds of changes in our environment to the point of even becoming able to modify it.

What would those homo Sapiens that fought to survive in the African Savannah 300.000 years ago say, if they knew that one day they would be the ones capable of populating an entire planet! And not only that, but that they would be able to move quickly by land, sea and air, multiply their life expectancy and send missions to outer space and create systems based on Artificial Intelligence that would convert them into “superhumans”

Figura 1: Superhéroe.
Figure 1. Superhero

 Superhumans? 

It is funny to talk about “Superhumans”, because the truth is that from a biological perspective we are nothing too wonderful. We are not especially strong or fast, we do not have "eagle eyesight", nor are we especially resistant ... However, our intelligence, and our social skills have allowed us to develop technologies to eliminate barriers, and overcome our biological limitations. This is how we started to tame and domesticate animals that allowed us to be "stronger and more resilient", move faster, and then to even "fly" with vehicles we created ourselves; also to create machines that allowed us to produce more food, and machines capable of working in conditions that humans would not be able to resist...

Once we have overcome our physical limitations, we have taken a step further. Current technologies have allowed us to connect our physical environment with the digital space through the Internet (yes, Internet of Things or IoT), and offer us an improved version of our sensory organs through a large number of sophisticated, ubiquitous and today, already affordable devices that offer us valuable information about our environment.

Finally, leaving aside the physical and sensorial barriers, why not the cognitive ones? In order to overcome the latter, progress has been necessary on different fronts. On one hand, the most tangible thing, the development of the transistor, the integrated circuits and the data storage devices, has allowed us to have necessary hardware, at an affordable price. The reduction in price and the availability of suitable hardware has allowed the development of Big Data technologies, such as Hadoop, which allows large volumes of information to be captured, stored and efficiently processed.

These technologies are what has made the "Golden Age"of Artificial Intelligence possible, which is not something new (it actually emerged in the 1950's), but has experimented spectacular growth in the last couple of years, among other accelerators, these technologies.

Fundamentally, AI is based on the idea of getting a computer to solve a complete problem in the same way as a human would. Thus, in the same way as in the Neolithic period humans began to domesticate animals and learned to take advantage of their strength and resistance to cultivate their fields more efficiently, today we use Artificial Intelligence in so many areas of human activity, sometimes we are not even aware of it. Not only it is easy to identify in robots that are used in heavy industry, or in autonomous cars, but AI is also used to diagnose diseases, organise staff rotations and assign hospital beds, to make decisions and perform high-speed stock trading, to support users as virtual assistants, optimize the emergency aid that reaches populations displaced by natural catastrophes, discover exoplanets, to control epidemics, to improve sports performance, detect trends and "feelings" in social networks, offer personalized offers, dynamic prices, perform preventive maintenance of all kinds, optimize consumption, automatically translate any language ... The list is never-ending, but the important thing is that technologies based on Artificial Intelligence allow us to perform virtually any task with much more efficiency than we would with our (limited) human capabilities. It's as if Artificial Intelligence gave us superpowers.


Overcoming our biological and cognitive limitations…Superpowers?

Almost everyone likes superheroes; fictional characters capable of overcoming classic heroes thanks to their superhuman powers. Many of them emerged in the late 1930s in the American comic industry, and were later adapted to other media, especially film. The character of Superman, created by the American writer Jerry Siegel and the Canadian artist Joe Shuster in 1933 was one of the first.

Let's remember it’s story a bit to set us up. Superman was born on the planet Krypton. Shortly before the destruction of his planet, when he was still a child, his parents sent him in a spaceship to Earth to save him. There he was found by the Kents, a couple of farmers in Smallville, Kansas, and raised with the name of Clark Kent, who imparted on him a strict moral code. Soon, young Kent begins to discover his superhuman abilities, his superpowers, where upon reaching adulthood, he would decide to use for the benefit of humanity.

And what are superman’s powers? Despite changing over the years, we more or less remember his great speed (“faster than a bullet”), his super strength (“more powerful than a locomotive”), his super- vision (“X-Ray, Infrared”), and above all, his ability to fly. The image of Superman flying over the city with his red cape fluttering in the wind, still forms part of the collective image of those who first saw the film at the end of the 70s.

Figura 2: Comic de Superman.
Figure 2. A Superman comic

Why do we love Superheroes?

The thing we love the most, of course, is their superpowers, their ability to do things that are inaccessible to the rest of us mortals. Also, the mythical aura that gives them their vocation to "do good", to work for the good of humanity. And if we think about it, that is precisely what Artificial Intelligence allows us to do. It allows us to overcome our human limitations, and yes, gives us “superpowers”. For us, if we were to have an elevated ethical sense like Superman, we would choose to use them for good. On the other hand, we could also use them exclusively for our own benefit, even with the risk of harming others and joining the long list of “Supervillans”. For this reason, it’s crucial to define an ethical code and regulatory framework for the use of AI.

AI gives us “Super powers”, we become Superheroes 

Thanks to AI, we can therefore, like Superman “be faster than a bullet” (a lot faster!), do calculations, tend to our clients at any time using a Bot, or analyse enormous volumes of data to detect, for example, anomalies. We can also boast our "super-vision" and process a large number of images at high speed to identify a face or a possible tumor in a medical test. And flying ...also an experience that can be improved thanks to AI. From the use of autopilots that take all types of flight data to optimize parameters, to systems that optimize trajectory calculations in highly saturated airspaces, fuel consumption forecasts, prediction models of adverse weather conditions, etc.

What can´t AI do?

Superpowers without a superhero who decides what to do and how to use them, have no meaning. In reality, they are just tools that humans created to make life easier. They may be so sophisticated and powerful that we sometimes forget that, in the end, without human intelligence deciding how they should be used, they have their limitations.
Thus, an IA-based application can translate a text into another language but cannot understand it. They cannot read between the lines. They can calculate the number of times certain words appear that are considered positive or negative and thus assign a "feeling", but cannot understand the deep meaning of the words, or the real emotions behind them.

Another example: One of the most widely used Deep Learning techniques for image recognition (computer vision) is the convolutional neural networks CNNs. These systems classify the objects that appear in an image based on the detection of patterns that match those learned in previous training processes with many tagged images. So far, so good. AI algorithms will look for the pattern that best fits the image in question and will offer a result. But this AI is not able to realize if the result it offers makes sense or not. Any human would have immediately detected a known error from Google, where they labelled an image of an African-American couple as "gorillas". The AI gave its best result, as learned from their training data. But this is where the "limitations" of AI that we have mentioned above come into play. Is this data adequate or is there a bias? In this example, there was a clear racial bias. By not having enough images of African-American people in the training data, the algorithm was not able to give an adequate result.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, Artificial Intelligence is one of the most powerful tools that the human being has created as it can be applied to almost any field of human activity. Like other previous advances in Human Science and Technology, it allows us to go beyond our biological limitations, and for that reason, it turns us a little into Superheroes. But Artificial Intelligence is a tool created by man, for man.

Without human intelligence to define its objective, choose which is the most appropriate "superpower" for each situation, know its limitations, define boundaries, discard the "exact" but absurd results ... it does not make any sense.

To add to this, there is a part of human nature that can never be "optimized" by AI: our social dimension, our emotions, empathy and creativity. A "companion" robot can remind you to take your medication, but it can´t give you a hug, or generate a smile, or have that crazy and original idea that solves the problem or at least prompts a laugh.

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