Michael I. Jordan on Artificial Intelligence:  ”The Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet”

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Michael I. Jordan for the RISElab/UCBerkeley website.

“Our mission in the RISELab is to develop technologies that enable applications to interact intelligently and securely with their environment in real time.

“As in previous labs, we’re all in — working on everything from basic research to software development, all in the Berkeley tradition of open publication and open source software. We’ll use this space to lay out our ideas and progress as we go.

(This article has originally been published on Medium.com

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the mantra of the current era. The phrase is intoned by technologists, academicians, journalists and venture capitalists alike. As with many phrases that cross over from technical academic fields into general circulation, there is significant misunderstanding accompanying the use of the phrase. But this is not the classical case of the public not understanding the scientists — here the scientists are often as befuddled as the public. The idea that our era is somehow seeing the emergence of an intelligence in silicon that rivals our own entertains all of us — enthralling us and frightening us in equal measure. And, unfortunately, it distracts us.

There is a different narrative that one can tell about the current era. Consider the following story, which involves humans, computers, data and life-or-death decisions, but where the focus is something other than intelligence-in-silicon fantasies. When my spouse was pregnant 14 years ago, we had an ultrasound. There was a geneticist in the room, and she pointed out some white spots around the heart of the fetus. “Those are markers for Down syndrome,” she noted, “and your risk has now gone up to 1 in 20.” She further let us know that we could learn whether the fetus in fact had the genetic modification underlying Down syndrome via an amniocentesis. But amniocentesis was risky — the risk of killing the fetus during the procedure was roughly 1 in 300. Being a statistician, I determined to find out where these numbers were coming from. To cut a long story short, I discovered that a statistical analysis had been done a decade previously in the UK, where these white spots, which reflect calcium buildup, were indeed established as a predictor of Down syndrome. But I also noticed that the imaging machine used in our test had a few hundred more pixels per square inch than the machine used in the UK study. I went back to tell the geneticist that I believed that the white spots were likely false positives — that they were literally “white noise.” She said “Ah, that explains why we started seeing an uptick in Down syndrome diagnoses a few years ago; it’s when the new machine arrived.”

We didn’t do the amniocentesis, and a healthy girl was born a few months later. But the episode troubled me, particularly after a back-of-the-envelope calculation convinced me that many thousands of people had gotten that diagnosis that same day worldwide, that many of them had opted for amniocentesis, and that a number of babies had died needlessly. And this happened day after day until it somehow got fixed. The problem that this episode revealed wasn’t about my individual medical care; it was about a medical system that measured variables and outcomes in various places and times, conducted statistical analyses, and made use of the results in other places and times. The problem had to do not just with data analysis per se, but with what database researchers call “provenance” — broadly, where did data arise, what inferences were drawn from the data, and how relevant are those inferences to the present situation? While a trained human might be able to work all of this out on a case-by-case basis, the issue was that of designing a planetary-scale medical system that could do this without the need for such detailed human oversight.

I’m also a computer scientist, and it occurred to me that the principles needed to build planetary-scale inference-and-decision-making systems of this kind, blending computer science with statistics, and taking into account human utilities, were nowhere to be found in my education. And it occurred to me that the development of such principles — which will be needed not only in the medical domain but also in domains such as commerce, transportation and education — were at least as important as those of building AI systems that can dazzle us with their game-playing or sensorimotor skills.

Whether or not we come to understand “intelligence” any time soon, we do have a major challenge on our hands in bringing together computers and humans in ways that enhance human life. While this challenge is viewed by some as subservient to the creation of “artificial intelligence,” it can also be viewed more prosaically — but with no less reverence — as the creation of a new branch of engineering. Much like civil engineering and chemical engineering in decades past, this new discipline aims to corral the power of a few key ideas, bringing new resources and capabilities to people, and doing so safely. Whereas civil engineering and chemical engineering were built on physics and chemistry, this new engineering discipline will be built on ideas that the preceding century gave substance to — ideas such as “information,” “algorithm,” “data,” “uncertainty,” “computing,” “inference,” and “optimization.” Moreover, since much of the focus of the new discipline will be on data from and about humans, its development will require perspectives from the social sciences and humanities.

While the building blocks have begun to emerge, the principles for putting these blocks together have not yet emerged, and so the blocks are currently being put together in ad-hoc ways.

Thus, just as humans built buildings and bridges before there was civil engineering, humans are proceeding with the building of societal-scale, inference-and-decision-making systems that involve machines, humans and the environment. Just as early buildings and bridges sometimes fell to the ground — in unforeseen ways and with tragic consequences — many of our early societal-scale inference-and-decision-making systems are already exposing serious conceptual flaws.

And, unfortunately, we are not very good at anticipating what the next emerging serious flaw will be. What we’re missing is an engineering discipline with its principles of analysis and design.

The current public dialog about these issues too often uses “AI” as an intellectual wildcard, one that makes it difficult to reason about the scope and consequences of emerging technology. Let us begin by considering more carefully what “AI” has been used to refer to, both recently and historically.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Michael I. Jordan is Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked for over three decades in the computational, inferential, cognitive and biological sciences, first as a graduate student at UCSD and then as a faculty member at MIT and Berkeley. One of his recent roles is as a Faculty Partner and Co-Founder at AI@The House — a venture fund and accelerator in Berkeley. This fund aims to support not only AI activities, but also IA and II activities, and to do so in the context of a university environment that includes not only the engineering disciplines, but also the perspectives of the social sciences, the cognitive sciences and the humanities.


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