Artificial intelligence: Not the apocalypse, more of an invisible assistant

AI probably won't end the world - and might even take some of the stress out of your life.

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While most agree that artificial intelligence will have a huge impact on society, not everyone is sure whether that impact will be for good or ill. One man who believes that the fears of the doom-and-gloom merchants are groundless is analyst, author and futurologist, Tom Koulopoulos

ZDNet: Tell me about your new book, The Bottomless Cloud?

Koulopoulos: Clearly, we are at a point where the noise level around AI has reached an apex – a lot of very big promises along with scepticism and outright fear. What clouds the issue is that we we have extremes at both ends of that spectrum – making promises that are much greater than what we are going to able to live on in the near term and we are painting a picture of a dystopian future that will somehow be the end of humanity as we know it.

I think that as is the case with any extreme perspective or point of view, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The way I usually characterise the evolution of AI – at least in the next ten to twenty years – is to say that it will be applied in very narrow domains and that, for the most part, what is invisible to us as workers – we will live our lives, we will do our jobs – is that we won't know that AI is there. It will be part of the landscape, part of the way that we interact with technology, but not necessarily in your face.

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This whole notion of robots as AI – our robotic overlords, putting us out of jobs, eliminating the need for human beings – is part of the fantasy associated with them.

I think what we need to understand is how AI, in a very narrow setting, can help to alleviate a lot of the stress factors and the workload and this tremendous burden that technology has placed on us as human beings.

Frankly, technology has become a very tedious and time-consuming thing for a lot of people and also a very frustrating thing.

In many ways, AI can be beneficent in ways that can be surprising, such as the iRobot vacuum cleaner. Do you see more uses like that?

That's exactly what I see. What I see is very narrow, very limited uses in terms of the application of AI, but yes, extraordinarily valuable.   

iRobot is a wonderful example because what you have going on there is a device that can not only follow a set of rules in how to clean a house but can learn so that it can understand when you move furniture around and plan its routes accordingly. It becomes a collaborator, of sorts.

And I think that notion of devices that can make our lives easier can be the best examples of AI that most of us are going to encounter. The range here is from the vacuum cleaner to the autonomous vehicle.

I think that we shall increasingly be working with, exposed to and collaborating with, devices on many scales from very small scale – your thermostat, your vacuum cleaner – to very large scale.

To give an example, with autonomous vehicles, one of the biggest conversations right now is not how do we make them driverless - we're very close there, what they call level four, on the data-storage side - but how to make them more personalised; personalisaed to what you're feeling on that day.   

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Koulopoulos: "AI will be part of the landscape, part of the way that we interact with technology."

Photo: Barker/ZDNet

What does that mean? It means, is that the music that I play? Is the lighting right? Do I like the ambience, the ride quality? How do I create an environment that suits my needs at that moment?

It's a fascinating thing to think, what does an object become? Could it be used as a platform that could be used for socialisation? Or that could be used for meditation, for tranquil time?

We don't think about these things because the machines do it all for you.

Do you think the computer industry is doing a good job explaining the benefits to people?

Interesting question. I don't think they are doing a great job. Unfortunately, the most visible commentary out of the computer industry are the naysayers – the folks that are all doom and gloom, that think AI could be mankind's last great invention.

I think that casts a pall, a shadow over AI. Look, the kind of AI that we are talking about and we will have over the next few decades is not that kind of generalised AI. It may get there at some point but what we have now is very narrow AI.

What the industry is not doing is explaining how we could get benefits from AI in very specific situations. The reality is that that, unfortunately, doesn't play very well in the media as do the naysayers and the apocalyptic prognostications. They tend to get a lot more coverage.

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However, I do think that we can do a better job if we begin with educating people on what AI really is. But the situation is that most people who really know AI want to keep it to themselves. They see it as a religion and are not doing a very good job at explaining it on a broad basis.

I try to do that with the book. What it sets out to do is give a very practical perspective on what AI can do for us. But what I do say in the book is that this is very evolutionary, very necessary, will have a huge impact on our lives but it's not apocalyptic. People will accept and embrace AI. But my vacuum cleaner? Well heck it's still just a vacuum cleaner. It does what it is intended to do, and it just does it more intelligently.