Monday, March 13, 2017

Stop the AI BS already

I am getting really tired of all the AI hype. Last week alone, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fox News, Huffington Post, MIT Tech Review, The Guardian,TechCrunch, Bloomsburg, Newsweek, Fortune, Fast Company. and a host of lesser known publications had articles hyping AI. In contrast, Atlantic Magazine actually had a reasonable article about why the term AI has become meaningless.

So, I thought I would take a moment to explain something simple about AI. Most of my work in AI was an attempt to get computers to understand English. We had a program hooked up to the UPI wire at one point that could summarize a story, answer questions about the story, and translate that story, To do this we had had to carefully represent  various domains of knowledge. So if we wanted the program to understand stories about diplomatic visits for example, we had to represent in gory detail what took place on a diplomatic visit, why that visit took place, and what kinds of accomplishments were hoped for and might be achieved.

To help you understand how hard this is. I wrote down some words that I saw in today’s New York Times:


An “AI” that read stories or did anything else would have to understand what these words meant. Many people wouldn’t be able to explain them all. But, today, we are told about “AI’s” that can deal with the words it finds on the internet in various ways and then we must all watch out before they take away our jobs.

I know this is not true because I know how hard it is to represent the complex meanings of words like this, and I know that the “AI” that is being worked on now isn’t even trying to comprehend these words. Todays “AI” is all about counting words and finding superficial patterns among them. No matter how many times you count the word discrimination you would not comprehend what it was about, why it might matter, nor would you understand which sense of discrimination was being used when you read it.

What does communitarian mean? I can guess and can figure it out in context. Current “AI’s” can count it. What does quintessential mean? Could you explain it to a computer? How about self-deprecation? Try explaining that word to a child. AI needs to do simple things like figure out what a word might mean and explain what it has just read to others. We are nowhere near doing that.

Let me try to explain just one of these words. Let’s look at “faith.” What does it mean to have faith in someone? It means we believe that they will do what they say. Or it could mean that we believe they will do their best to come through in a difficult situation. But faith refer to more than people. You could have faith in a company, which would mean that you believe their products are good. Or you could have faith in the system which means that you think you should follow the rules. Or you couch have faith in a religion which means you believe their teachings. Faith also connotes a kind of optimism. But there is also the word faithful which in the context of religion is the same as faith but in the context of marriage has to do with extra marital affairs.

How do we explain this to a computer? To do that we need to detail the rules of marriage or work (a “faithful employee.”) You could be a faithful advocate of a political persuasion or religion or point of view on life. But for a computer to understand all this it would need to comprehend political philosophies, religious philosophies and a whole lot more. You could a faithful follower of a band or you could be playing Minecraft which has a faithful resource pack.

My point is this: AI requires modeling the world in gory metal so that we can comprehend people's actions, intents, beliefs, and a while lot more. Sorry, but matching keywords is not AI.

But the press will keep on telling us how an AI will suddenly take our jobs and how chat bots are the answer to customer service. I don’t know about you but if I got a chat bot answering my customer service call, I would hang up.  Or maybe I would filibuster. Or maybe I would show some restraint. Either way no AI would know what I was doing nor would it understand if I explained it.

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