el kaliouby and Monboit

Collision: Contemplating the singularity and discussing suicide with a robot

Silicon Valley veteran Jerry Kaplan came to the Collision tech conference in New Orleans to talk about artificial intelligence, human intelligence, the likelihood of singularity and the future of technology and our lives.

Jerry Kaplan

But his message was a little more tangible than all that: Don’t let the hype around artificial intelligence distract you from the tremendous opportunities and potential pitfalls that lie before us as human beings. We are a long way away from humans merging with machines or machines taking over human existence.

“We need to get rid of, in this field, this gee-whiz, apocalyptic gloss,” Kaplan, an artificial intelligence pioneer who co-founded Go and Onsale, said speaking from the conference’s main stage. “I’m not worried about super-intelligent machines or whether I’m going to live long enough to be uploaded into cyberspace. Such concerns only distract us from the real threats and opportunities that mankind is likely to face.”

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It’s the sort of discussion that breaks out at Collision, a three-year-old conference that attracts entrepreneurs, investors, media and is increasingly becoming a place for the technerati to be seen.

While the vast exhibit hall is full of startups showing off how they intend to change an industry, a part of an industry or the world, the conference sessions include presentations not only about where tech is taking us all, but also whether that is a place we want to be.

Kaplan talked about two world’s of artificial intelligence, or AI: one very grounded, powering business worldwide and evolving at times in different directions. The other one of near science fiction in which machines “are going to get so smart that they’re going to stop at nothing to achieve their goals.”

He argued for the former view. Yes, progress is being made, but artificial intelligence progress can be measured in refinements and improvements, not some steady march to free-thinking machines.

Arguing that fully thinking machines are one step closer every time artificial intelligence takes a step forward is a little like saying your smartphone is becoming more intelligent every time you download an app, Kaplan argued. (Hey, now it knows the weather outside! Hey now it can tell my sports scores!)

None of which diminishes the achievements of those developing artificial intelligence — which now drives cars, offers shoppers personalized recommendations, writes financial earnings stories, shows you the way home, recommends restaurants and on and on, Kaplan said. Nor does it diminish the importance of artificial intelligence in our future.

“I think it’s an important technology,” he said, “and it’s going to have a very big impact, as big an impact, in my view, as the invention of the wheel.” Kaplan’s talk was one of several on Wednesday that reminded technologists that with great power comes great responsibility.

Natalie Monbiot, of UM Worldwide, opened a separate panel on the commercial applications of artificial intelligence by in effect laying out the stakes.

“We’re basically entering — AI is helping us to enter — the holy grail of marketing, where we can actually have, as brands, emotional one-to-one relationships with consumers at scale.”

el kaliouby and Monboit

Great for marketers, right? What’s better than appealing not only to a customer’s mind, but to a customer’s mind and heart. But what comes with that power?

Rana el Kaliouby co-founded Affectiva, a company that provides a tool to recognize emotion by a person’s voice and facial expressions. The technology allows companies to craft experiences that acknowledge and incorporate those emotions.

“Emotions are very personal to people,” she said. “If  if we start building these very emotionally engaging experiences, what kind of responsibility does that place on the designer of the experiences? How do you incorporate empathy?”

The panel talked about a future of robotic healthcare-givers in homes and robots taking care of children and chatbots that will gather medical information from patients. What sort of requirement is there for transparency? What do those being served by machines need to know about how those machines operate and what they do with information?

Monbiot suggested that some studies indicated that patients are more comfortable “talking” to machines about uncomfortable subjects, like depression and suicide.

Is that good news? el Kaliouby said it’s good that patients can open up, but then what?

“Now the avatar may know you have depression,” she said. “Does it disclose this to your doctor? Does it tell your mom? Does it tell your partner?”

Fascinating questions, no doubt. And in some ways, not unlike the sorts of ethical and legal dilemmas that arise almost whenever technology moves forward. In fact, the technology often moves faster than the mores that will govern it.

It’s a positive, then, that the conversation is underway, even as the work on artificial intelligence continues on. No doubt, the future will be here before we know it — whether it comes with the singularity or not.

Photo of Jerry Kaplan courtesy of Collision. Photo of Rana el Kaliouby, Babak Hodjat, Douglas Merrill and Natalie Monbiot by Mike Cassidy.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.