What humans need to learn about machine learning


Artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, cognitive computing — whatever you want to call machines that are capable of understanding and acting upon their environment — is no longer solely the purview of highly credentialed lab directors and deep-thinking computer scientists. It has entered mainstream consciousness, and the public expects IT to play a leadership role as machine learning enters our workplaces, our living spaces and our lives. Will you be ready?

Chances are that you are not. Most executives, in the opinion of New York Timestechnology columnist John Markoff, are “ill prepared for this new world in the making.”

This is unacceptable. People have been thinking about automated work forever. The first reference in literature (and consistent with the historical theme that the benefits of automation accrue to the elite of society) is probably the mention of automatai —devices that opened and closed the gates of Olympus so that the gods in their chariots could go in and out — in Book 5 of The Illiad. (As Daniel Mendelsohn noted in The New York Review of Books, this was some 30 centuries before the first automatic garage door opener.) And a close reading of the Odyssey reveals the hero visiting a king who has gold and silver watchdogs. People have been thinking about using technology to get work done since there was work to be done.

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Coming to terms with machine learning is all the more critical because it could end up governing us at the highest levels of society. While taking part in a CES panel on A.I. in 2014, Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg went so far as to contend that the mastery of machine learning/cognitive computing/A.I. has “become crucial for the development of countries.” And at a recent [email protected], authors Richard and Daniel Susskind, two leading thinkers on the topic, were asked in all seriousness whether they thought countries would be better off run by machine intelligence.

Then there’s Michael Froomkin, the Laurie Silvers & Mitchell Rubenstein distinguished professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law, who concluded the WeRobot 2016 Conference by observing that “the social importance of what we are talking about is getting exponentially big. We have just now crossed the Rubicon from the point of which this is just an expert subject to where the public is engaged for better or worse.” 

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In short, I had ample reason to undertake a research project to discover what we know and what we need to know about machine learning, the state of A.I. and the coming age of robo assistants. 

My first conclusion is that displacement is inevitable.

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