Professor Margaret Boden’s talk at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks

downloadProfessor Boden has been in the AI business long enough to have worked with John McCarthy and some of the other founders of the science of artificial intelligence. During her animated and compelling talk to a highly engaged audience at CSER in Cambridge last month, the sparkle in her eye betrayed the fun she still gets from it.

The main thrust of her talk was that those who believe that an artificial general intelligence (AGI) may be created within the next century are going to be disappointed. She was at pains to emphasise that the project is feasible in principle, but she offered a series of examples of things which AI systems cannot do today, which she is convinced they will remain unable to do for a very long time, and perhaps forever.

Professor Boden likes to laugh, and she likes to make other people laugh. Her first example concerned two blackberry pickers. One, a young man, can pick 30 pounds in a day, and the other, a young woman, can pick 20. If you ask an AI how many pounds they will pick on a joint trip to the hedgerows it will say 50. If you ask adult humans, they will give you a wry smile and reply that the number may well be considerably smaller.

Several members of the audience took issue with professor Boden’s assessment of the state of play in computer vision, arguing that Google’s and Facebook’s systems can now recognise animal faces from all angles, not just from the front as she said. But there was a more open debate about whether AI systems will be able to take relevance and context into account. She told the story of her young granddaughter, who delights in telling this joke: What do you call two robbers in an underwear shop? A pair of nickers. Her granddaughter enjoys the faux-appalled laugh this raises from adults, but she doesn’t understand it – and neither could an AI system. Some people in the audience were not convinced that she had proved her point, and a vigorous debate followed the talk.

Notwithstanding her scepticism about the prospects for near-term AGI, Professor Boden is pleased at the media coverage of the expressions of concern by Hawking, Musk, Gates and others. She thinks that AI will present us with significant challenges long before AGI, notably the possibility of automation leading to widespread technological unemployment. On that point there was widespread agreement.

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