Don't Cook the Cat: Humanity & AI at TED

Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin

— Melissa Waggener Zorkin 

Is there anything machines can’t learn to do? They can play chess, hike through the forest, deliver packages, make dinner, build cars and cell phones and virtually everything else, perform surgery, be your lawyer, get into college— and, of course, I could go on and on.

Robots TED2017One of the buzziest questions at TED2017 last week was whether all this is good news or bad news. In a fascinating session called “Our Robotic Overlords,” I watched as seven brilliant people — some of the world’s best roboticists, computer scientists, mathematicians, software developers and engineers — tried to answer it. Implicitly, each speaker offered a rejoinder to AI-skeptics like Elon Musk, who’s told reporters he’s afraid computer scientists might “produce something evil by accident” (like “a fleet of artificial intelligence-enhanced robots capable of destroying mankind”) and Stephen Hawking, who told the BBC a couple of years ago that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

I don’t wonder who is right; clearly, everybody is. The geniuses who say that AI is the source of our greatest opportunities are no more or less informed than the geniuses who worry it will be the end of all of us. What matters is how we — the people behind the computer keyboard — use it.

At it happens, we’ve been having this conversation for generations. At the New York World’s Fair in Queens in 1939, visitors to the GM pavilion watched a film about a (rather creepy, in my opinion) “domestic robot” named Roll-Oh who could answer the phone and the door, retrieve visitors’ hats, open cans for dinner and water plants with his fingertips, vacuum the carpet with his feet, and use his mouth to light the candles for a romantic dinner. At the Westinghouse exhibit, fairgoers met Elektro, a seven-foot­­-tall (and only slightly less creepy) “moto-man” who could walk, speak, blow up balloons and, most famously, smoke cigarettes.

Robots TED WE blogToday’s robots are more sophisticated than Roll-Oh and Elektro, but thankfully they have the same limitations: They can still only do what we tell them to do.

At the TED conference last week, the Berkeley computer science professor Stuart Russell explained why that’s important. “If a robot’s job is to feed hungry kids and it sees the family cat but doesn’t see that the sentimental value of the pet is greater than its nutritional value,” he said, “that could single-handedly destroy the market for home robots.” The bigger point, of course, is that it could also single-handedly destroy the cat — which is exactly the result we’re trying to avoid.

And so I suppose the real question is: Can a robot learn to be human? What does it mean to be human? What are “values,” really, and how do we teach them? Are there things a human can do that a robot never could? Can we keep the cat alive and off our dinner table?

For me, and for WE, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” In the right hands, technology is a wonderful boon to us all — but technology alone can’t have relationships. It can’t make judgments. It can’t communicate to an outcome and an impact. It can’t understand, and it can’t use that understanding to move people to action.

It takes real bonds with other people to do all that — bonds that are at the heart of the work WE does. From our position here at the intersection of technology and people, we know that it’s our human values — the questions we ask, the relationships we build, the stories we tell — that really matter.

Robots can be interesting, but they can’t be interested. Robots don’t have a duty to strangers, but we do. Robots can’t ask, as we do, “to what end?” As chess great Garry Kasparov put it in his talk last week, “Machines have calculations; humans have understanding. Machines have instructions; we have purpose. Machines have objectivity; we have passion.” He concluded: “If we fail, it will not be because our machines were too intelligent or not intelligent enough. If we fail, it’s because we grew complacent and limited our ambition. There’s one thing only humans can do, and that’s dream — so let us dream big.”  


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