28 Dec 2017 16:37 IST

Tech got too smart this year

Impressive but frightening advances have all but redefined reality in 2017

The year 2017 has seen some stunning advances in technology. It’s not about gadgets and gizmos but really about software, which has evolved to a form that now needs to be called Intelligence. The breakthroughs made in technology this year are enough to change human society and perhaps even existence, just as electricity changed everything in 1879, and the invention of the light bulb.

As impressive as progress in technology may be, it’s now beginning to sink in that it’s more of a double-edged sword than we ever knew, being able to do as much harm as potential good. How much has humankind shot itself in the foot with what it’s created will unfold over the next few years. This time it isn’t just hype but a world condition in which ‘ big tech’ holds sway and determines everything including who wins an election. There was a time when you could unplug or avoid opting for technology usage. But now it’s too late because it impacts every life and is so interwoven in everything that we do. Technology has gone beyond just being an aid and has begun to define the way we live our lives and interact with others. Here’s how this played out in 2017.

Outsmarting smartness

How clever was it to create something that can be smarter than its creators? We’ll know someday, but meanwhile Artificial Intelligence, a term that has resonated the whole year through, is starting to show that it needs very little human help anymore. Google’s AlphaGo defeated the world champion at the complex and ancient Chinese game of Go last year, but just this October, AlphaGo Zero, the next evolution, demonstrated to a startled world that it could teach itself the game right from scratch. The programme played millions of games against itself and learnt the rules, even becoming inventive with them. Now, no one can win against Zero. But more importantly, we have to ponder what happens when a supercomputer can learn 3,000 years of human knowledge in 40 days and then surge past it.

Practically every tech company wants to get on the AI action now. Wherever it fits — or doesn’t — it’s stuffed into products and services. AI is supposed to be making the first strides in knowing what humans are doing, where they are, what they’re feeling and what they want to do next. All of the data gathered goes to pushing more services and messages at us.

On the other hand, artificial intelligence is helping do things in healthcare, agriculture and other industries that have never been possible. To take just one example, thousands of images of skin problems can be shown to an intelligent system which will go through them at volumes and speeds no human can and be able to match a disease to an image.

And if so far we thought that creativity was strictly the domain of human beings, we can think again. AI has been used to create music, write stories, paint like master artists, and compose songs. The results are sometimes astounding, but just as often go quite wrong, such as in this Christmas carol: ““Hart fon the be the he br wong on the stor Christmas br he, or the wang, Christ, Christ, on, bn a me the stord, Hont on thr st bong the wor” as spotted by the Inquistr.

Look who's human

Closely tied to research in AI is the field of robotics, which puts together machine and knowledge into near-human androids that live with us and apparently make life better. Sophie the pretty robot went to the United Nations, was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia of all places, and became a television star of sorts. Engineers liked their robot creations so much they wanted to marry them and have children with them — tech style, that is. But the bigger impact of robotics has been on jobs, present and future. The industry is beginning to automate wherever it can to save on costs and resources with the unhappy result that many jobs stand to disappear. Experts say don’t worry, new jobs will come through and robots are meant to work along with people, not against. Meanwhile robots are taking up positions at restaurants to serve customers, wearing legal garb to fight court cases, picking up the brush to become art restorers, and getting in front of the camera to read the news. Voices are being raised in protest, urging governments and businesses to step on the brakes and form policies that allow such technology to advance responsibly and ethically. With robots quickly becoming quite human and self-aware and creating their own knowledge and drawing deductions, it’s more than high time.

Assistance everywhere

Artificial intelligence and big data is also at the heart of all the assistants that are beginning to populate our lives. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, Bixby — all ready to listen and respond. And track, of course. With leaps forward in natural language processing, machine perception and learning, the assistants and their smaller cousins, chatbots, know more about people than one can fathom. The year gone by has seen virtual assistants being built into home speakers like Amazon’s Echo and similar products from Google and Apple and they will only gain in skill and power over the next year.

An age of falsity

A combination of new technologies are ensuring that reality as we know it is changing. When you message a company to complain about some product, you won’t know whether it’s a real person responding or a chatbot or the point where the bot hands over to an actual human. When you see a piece of news somewhere online or forwarded on Whatsapp or appearing on Facebook or Twitter, you won’t know whether it’s fake. Just about everyone has ended up believing ‘news’ that never happened because there’s no way to tell. Machine learning can lip sync over videos making people look as if they said things they never really did. AI can change so much about a video that a person can be placed somewhere he/she definitely was not. On top of that, other ‘realities’ are being developed so that the human brain can get nice and mixed up about how to respond when it sees real versus virtual reality, augmented or mixed reality. How far these technologies will go in 2018 and beyond will change the way we live.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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