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The Real Threat of AI

They’re creating machines that could one day approximate and surpass human intelligence — a technological achievement that may come with as many complications as the advent of nuclear weapons.
- Farhad Manjoo, Can Washington Stop Big Tech Companies? Don’t Bet on It, NYT, OCT. 25, 2017


People worry that developments in A.I. will bring about the “singularity” — that point in history when A.I. surpasses human intelligence, leading to an unimaginable revolution in human affairs. Or they wonder whether instead of our controlling artificial intelligence, it will control us, turning us, in effect, into cyborgs.

These are interesting issues to contemplate, but they are not pressing. They concern situations that may not arise for hundreds of years, if ever. ...
This doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about. On the contrary, the A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges. ...
Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs... and replacing them with other jobs.... Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs....
- KAI-FU LEE, The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence, NYT, JUNE 24, 2017


It’s in these blind spots that we find the most problematic biases with Google, like in the way it once suggested a spelling correction for the search “English major who taught herself calculus” — the correct spelling, Google offered, was “English major who taught himself calculus.”

Why did it do that? Google’s explanation was not at all comforting: The phrase “taught himself calculus” is a lot more popular online than “taught herself calculus,” so Google’s computers assumed that it was correct. In other words, a longstanding structural bias in society was replicated on the web, which was reflected in Google’s algorithm, which then hung out live online for who knows how long, unknown to anyone at Google, subtly undermining every female English major who wanted to teach herself calculus.

Eventually, this error was fixed. But how many other such errors are hidden in Google? We have no idea.

Google says it understands these worries, and often addresses them. In 2016, some people noticed that it listed a Holocaust-denial site as a top result for the search “Did the Holocaust happen?” That started a large effort at the company to address hate speech and misinformation online. The effort, Dr. Nayak said, shows that “when we see real-world biases making results worse than they should be, we try to get to the heart of the problem.”

Yet it is not just these unintended biases that we should be worried about. Researchers point to other issues: Google’s algorithms favor recency and activity, which is why they are so often vulnerable to being manipulated in favor of misinformation and rumor in the aftermath of major news events. (Google says it is working on addressing misinformation.)
- Farhad Manjoo, Here’s the Conversation We Really Need to Have About Bias at Google, NYT, Aug. 30, 2018


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