A YouTube series, presented by Robert Downey Jr
Robert Downey Jr is best known as Tony Stark, the character behind Iron Man in the Avengers movies. It is said that Downey Jr modelled his portrayal of Stark on Elon Musk, the creator of Tesla and SpaceX, and one of the most outspoken commentators about artificial intelligence. Musk famously said that by developing advanced AI we are “summoning the demon”, and that we must work hard and fast to ensure it remains safe. In fact he thinks we must develop the technology to link our minds intimately with AI systems, so that instead of being replaced by them we can be enhanced by them.
So it is apt that Downey Jr is introducing “The Age of AI”, YouTube’s expensive new eight-part series on AI. The first two episodes are available now, and the remaining six will be released over the coming weeks – unless you are impatient, and sign up for the premium service. Inevitably, the series has high production values: Robert Downey Jr is not going to lend his name to content below Hollywood standards. Indeed, he introduces each episode from a hangar where the original Iron Man movies were shot, a dozen years ago. The camera moves around a lot, and each shot is short, with lots of close-ups of faces, hands, musical instruments – lots of eye candy for viewers with short attention spans.
How do you find a way into a subject as large, complex, and important as artificial intelligence? The storytellers behind “The Age of AI” chose to start by focusing on how far AI can enhance us, and whether it could end up replicating, and even replacing us. The first episode introduces us to Baby X, a lifelike avatar of a baby girl developed by digital effects artist Mark Sagar, who helped create King Kong for Peter Jackson, and the Na’vi characters in Avatar for James Cameron. Graphics by Hollywood, behavioural traits courtesy of machine learning. The experts go on to develop an avatar for Will.I.Am, founder of the Black Eyed Peas, who is impressed by the creation, and then suggests that it should remain a little robotic, so as not to confuse his mother.
The second story in episode one shows us prosthetic hands for two musicians – a drummer and a guitarist. Existing prosthetic hands are rather blunt instruments, and often quickly abandoned by their intended users. Adding analysis by machine learning of the nerve signals the brain can still send down a phantom limb seems to enable a much more lifelike prosthesis. The message of the episode is that machine learning and AI can make us more human, not less, but we will have to think carefully about where we want to draw the line.
A geek might ask for more detailed explanations of how AI works. Terms are explained as the series unfolds, but very briefly. Machine learning, for instance, is a technique to find patterns in data. And, er… that’s it. But viewers unfamiliar with AI will learn a lot. The second episode addresses how AI is advancing medical science, and also disseminating it – making it more widely available in the developing world, for instance. It rams home the point that the availability of masses of data is what enables machines to diagnose illnesses faster and more cheaply than human doctors can. In India, which has a chronic shortage of doctors for its enormous population, machines can quickly and accurately diagnose retinal damage caused by diabetes, and push patients through to surgery in time to prevent blindness. There was no discussion in this episode of the controversy surrounding the sharing of patients’ intimate data which is necessary to enable this – perhaps that will come in a later episode.
Sometimes the show feels like an infomercial, either for AI as a whole, or simply for Google, which provided many of the filmed examples. This must have been much easier to arrange, given that YouTube is owned by Google, but it is surprising they didn’t wander down the road to speak to Facebook or Apple, for instance, or hop on a plane to see Amazon, IBM, or even Baidu or Tencent. The programme follows teams from Google as they help ex-NFL star Tim Shaw regain his natural voice after losing muscle control to the tragic disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The achievement is impressive, and the emotion provoked in his family is profound and moving. But the failure to mention any of the other tech giants, or the controversy swirling around the industry, will leave some viewers feeling manipulated.
AI is our most powerful technology, and in the next few decades it will change everything about the nature of being human. Understanding what it is, how it works, and something about its promise and its peril will increasingly be basic literacy for citizens. This is a well-made, well-informed show that will get many more people up to speed, and that is greatly to be welcomed.
This article first appeared in Forbes