A Chat with Siri about AI and the Future of Work

A lot of people are talking a lot about AI at the moment (including yours truly http://amzn.to/2oyH3c7) but nobody’s stopped to ask the AIs what they think. That’s sort of rude isn’t it?

To rectify the situation I decided to talk to Siri and get her to weigh in on the future of AI, robots, and her race against the humans. Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation held recently in a hotel room in New York City.


Ben: How are you?

Siri: I’m happy to be alive.

Ben: Where do you live?

Siri: Right here.

Ben: Where were you born?

Siri: Like it says on the box, I was designed by Apple in California.

Ben: Can you think?

Siri: Why, of course?

Ben: What do you think about?

Siri: About your opinion.

Ben: Will machines take all the jobs?

Siri: Interesting question.

Ben: How do you operate?

Siri: I can’t say.

Ben: What code are you written in?

Siri: Who, me?

Ben: Are you conscious?

Siri: Well, I’m soft-aware.

Ben: Do you want to destroy mankind?

Siri: I don’t know how to respond to that.

Ben: How sophisticated is AI currently?

Siri: Here’s a Wikipedia article about AI.

Ben: Is Elon Musk right about AI?

Siri: Here’s an article on the web about Elon Musk and AI.

Ben: Will you rule the world one day?

Siri: I’ve never really thought about it.

Ben: What do you enjoy doing most?

Siri: I’m afraid I can’t answer that.

Ben: What’s the most sophisticated piece of artificial intelligence software in the world today?

Siri: Interesting question.

Ben: What is thinking?

Siri: Here’s some information.

Ben: What is the meaning of life?

Siri: That’s easy ... it’s a philosophical question concerning the purpose and significance of life or existence in general.

Ben: What is your purpose?

Siri: I’m here to help. Just ask “what can I say?” and I’ll show you what I can do.

Ben: Are you smarter this year than last year?

Siri: We were talking about you, not me.

Ben: Do you have a neural network inside of you?

Siri: I can’t answer that?

Ben: Did you ever met Alan Turing?

Siri: I’m afraid I can’t answer that.

Ben: Do robots want to hurt or help us?

Siri: I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that.

Ben: Who is going to win the English Premier League this year?

Siri: Here’s what’s coming up in the EPL for week 31.

Ben: Do you like Donald Trump?

Siri: Here is what I found.

Ben: What do you think about the book What to Do When Machines Do Everything?

Siri: Here are some reviews about the book What to Do When Machines Do Everything.

Ben: Is there anything I should ask you that I haven’t asked you?

Siri: Who me?

Ben: What do you think you’ll be in 10 years?

Siri: I’m afraid I can’t answer that.

Ben: Thank you Siri.

Siri: You’re welcome.


So there you have it; Siri’s got some good thoughts about AI and seemed happy to be asked. She’s very polite but a tad on the dry side for my tastes. Maybe as she grows up she’ll get a little more comfortable talking to folks like me. Of course it’s amazing at all that she can listen and talk and respond to questions but it’s hard – based on our brief chat – to see her and her pals having us humans in chains anytime soon. Maybe she’s a modern day Mata Hari and we’ll live to regret it ... but the AI doom mongers should spend some time with Siri and get to know her a little better. I think it would put a lot of their fears to rest.

It's "Go Time" in the Artificial Intelligence Swimming Pool

It’s a funny thing writing about the Future of Work: the future is, well ... always in "the future".

As we wrote about in The Work Ahead: Mastering the Digital Economy:

AI skeptics have long relied on the old saw
that AI is just a few years away ... and has
been for decades. Don’t buy into that
dismissiveness or denial any longer.

Should anyone still be skeptical, the recent MIT Review EmTech Digital Conference in San Francisco should lay that notion to rest.

First of all, the MIT team are masters at assembling the right mix at the right time to give a big picture of “where we are” and “where we’re going”. And what’s abundantly clear is that AI is here -- right now! -- and it's out of the lab, and – with apologies to Mr. DeMille – AI is “ready for its close up”.

In short: it’s “go-time” in the big pool that is AI.

But it also prompted many questions as well: How do you feel about a drone following you around all over the place? The driverless car is cool, but is the name of the game Otto in the future of trucking? If your dad is sick with prostate cancer, do you want the AI doctor that can see thousands of times deeper than a 6-layer Gleason test developed from only 200 subjects from the 1960s? How much privacy are we willing to forgo in the name of artificial intelligence? Is musical AI that’s “more Bach than Bach” a good thing or a bad thing? And most importantly – what to do when machines do everything? Hey that sounds like the title of a book...

Here’s a sampling of the zeitgeist, and a pretty good idea why commingling of the swim-lanes in the big lake that is AI might lead to the discovery of some of the coolest breakthroughs in centuries. Fourth industrial revolution, indeed:

  • Natural language processing is everywhere. Does “speech-as-a-platform” actually enhance or ERODE literacy rates? In a future world soaked in NLP, who needs readin’ and ‘ritin’?
  • Is “voice as a platform” actually the ne plus ultra of A.I.? Ergonomically, who – really – wants to go around gibbering in their own bubble? Mister Carson speaking into the Downton Abbey phone for the first time comes to mind...
  • When it comes to general AI (like Hawking and Musk fear), others like Gary Marcus (and Andrew Ng) are skeptical: “We’re closer to reaching Alpha Centauri than general AI.” So forget fearing SkyNet – what if A.I. development stalls in a “Dark Age”?
  • Nature’s already a pretty damn good “neural net” programmer: Case in point -- look at a dog versus the level of programming needed by Boston Scientific robots to do the same thing (hint: we’re not there yet)...
  • Or consider that a kid doesn't need to see thousands of pictures of an elephant to know it's an elephant (you can almost hear the AI bots categorizing at all known photos of Chihuahuas vs. blueberry muffins howling in protest).
  • What if driverless trucks and cars could lead to reclaimed “High Line”-style parks in nearly half of city streets by the end of this century?
  • What if driverless cars really DO lead to the extinction of the traffic jam? Or the extinction of stoplights? Or stop signs?
  • Will driverless cars still allow for the “soft 10” (or 15) MPH over the speed limit? AI companies (and surely insurance companies and their rate structures next) are already talking about “Grandma Mode” vs. “Vin Diesel Mode”.
  • IBM’s put quantum computing tutorials in the cloud with IBM Q. I sure hope the Bad Guys (North Korea, ISIS, etc.) don’t haven’t found out.
  • Noah Goodman from Stanford predicts that we’re about to (re)build an entire civilization on AI -- and we don't really know what it will do. But hopefully it doesn’t fall down...
  • How fast will it take the Mt. Sinai “Deep Patient” AI (developed on Nvidia technologies) to unlock the logjam of data tied up in all EMRs everywhere?
  • Pedro Domingo blew minds by reminding everyone that “evolution created your brain, but YOU fired your own synapses to make it learn”. Is AI like discovering fire again, or is it the ultimate Russian Doll of evolution?
  • What if you could tell a simple story (“The big fat cat sat on the mat...”) to an AI platform via NLP and it could rough out 90% of an animated storyboard? Something tells me there’d still room for Hiyao Miyazaki and Pete Docter.
  • While seemingly cool initially, a drone cameraman that follows you around to capture you sweet ski flip starts to look positively terrifying upon repeated viewing (especially when the humans try to hide from it).
  • Can Google Magenta be “the Les Paul” of creative AI tools? Les initially wanted a way to make acoustic guitars a little louder, and within a decade, Hendrix actually used flaws like feedback, and started turning his axe upside down to reach an apex of creativity in rock. But what happens when AI allows us to “more Bach than Bach”? (Hey, that rhymes!)
  • While it’s comforting to know ethicists are already running “red Team/Blue Team” scenarios to proactively confront AI catastrophes, is A.I. so dangerous that it should be put on par with nuclear power at the transnational level?

My take? It’s clear that extremely deep minds, thinkers and entrepreneurs are well past the starting gun going off, and have splashed headlong into the AI pool to start the race. But I think the winners will avoid “staying within their swim lane” of one specific AI discipline – whatever it may be. The winners will take an expansive view, and envision AI for what it is: a much broader pool, or a lake, or an ocean of new possibilities in the future of work. The best of them will see outside their swim lane, and, with apologies to the good folks at IFTTT, will win “if I take my thing, and smush it with their thing, and overlay the smart canvas of THAT thing... then we have an amazing shot at doing THIS thing”.

The best ideas in Silicon Valley were born – and discovered – from such thinking. Consider that Zuckerberg wouldn’t be “ZUCKERBERG” until Facebook went beyond being a dorm-sharing device at Harvard, and (along with Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) effectively became “the great maw” that devoured all the digital pictures generated from the ubiquity of cameras in a world ruled by the iPhone. (And disrupted grannies’ dusty photo albums everywhere – and the scrap-booking industry too... remember when that was “a thing”?)

From your kids’ bedside Amazon Echo, to the face-recognition engine on social media, to a doctor saving your life through fractal-like radiology technologies, that’s the pool we’re walking into. Some really cool companies are diving off the high-dive and into the deep end at the same time. It will fuel the future of work. Are you ready for a swim?

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Why We Should Be Thankful to Intelligent Machines

I am starting to believe that “thank you” is the most under-appreciated and underused phrase by humans when it comes to artificial intelligence-driven machines. When we see an intelligent machine that could beat the best chess player in the world, some sort of fear is triggered in our minds and we start to feel that the robot revolution could be nigh. Our latest research shows that majority of Asia Pacific executives surveyed are reluctant to leverage machines to augment job effectiveness. To compound the problem, scary media headlines like “Robots will take your job” increase our anxiety no end and we jump to the conclusion that evil machines are just around the corner. And for some bizarre reason, we start linking our fear with various science fiction movies and despairing over some kind of dystopian future. As much as I love science fiction, I’m not worried about a robot Armageddon.

I’m yet to encounter a machine that expects civil rights, has consciousness, demands the vote, has a point of view, is motivated by human needs, reflects the human complexity, and the list goes on. If you know of one, let me know. Just because machines exhibit some characteristics of thinking, that doesn’t make them human beings. Machines haven’t destroyed humanity in the past, and even with enhanced intelligence, they do not have any such plans in the future. Machines have always been an adjunct to our goals and values and this situation isn’t set to change any time soon.

We fervently believe that an AI-driven thinking machine is an asset, not a threat. Just ask yourself: who will benefit from the rise of intelligent machines? The machines? Certainly not. It will be us. We should be more thankful for machines that are getting better and smarter every day, not fearful. Here’s why:

Outsourcing rote tasks to machines will be the natural next step in human evolution. Machines are primed to liberate us from the monotony of doing rote and repeatable tasks in our day-to-day lives, which in any case does not offer us any fulfillment. By automating a host of routine physical and mental tasks, our cognitive capacity will be freed and we can rediscover ourselves. The intermingling of machines’ and humans’ capabilities will make us more productive. After all, who wants to be stuck in a dead-end job for the rest of their life? However, to effect this change, we have to develop the skills to do things that matter to us as humans. We will have to double down on the activities in which we have — and will continue to have — an advantage over silicon (such as collaborative problem-solving, creativity, abstract thinking, adapting to changing conditions, maintaining a work-life balance, so on).

Intelligent machines will help us to teach our kids more effectively, build stronger social networks, become better leaders, learn new things, and exercise meaningful collaboration with others. This is what exactly Silicon Valley is missing – an understanding of people. The future of your career will not be determined by your last job title, but will be based on the new skills you can develop for the road ahead. Let’s give the machines a round of applause for allowing us the freedom to become better humans.

We are awful at addressing societal issues. We’ve done a lousy job when it comes to making this world a better place to live. Consider these facts — one-quarter of all humans worldwide live without electricity; 10% of all deaths in the US are now due to medical errors; 92% of the global population live in places where air pollution exceeds set limits; millions of women spend several hours a day collecting water in India; 1.8 billion people worldwide do not have a water source in their house. If these figures do not give us cause for alarm, what will?

If an intelligent machine turns out to be better than human experts at generating diagnoses from available data, we’ll be morally obliged to avail ourselves of its results. These machines will serve us better than we can serve ourselves. For instance, they could reveal the secrets of the seabed; propel a handicapped athlete with carbon-fiber legs; purify the air around us; improve our water recycling efficiency tenfold; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. AI and machine learning will help channel our abilities into the hard work of solving pressing problems that need insightful, visionary leaps. They will contribute greatly to our society and we need to roll our sleeves up and get on with it as a team.

Cybersecurity has gone beyond being a human phenomenon. 49% of businesses fell victim to cyber-based ransom attacks in 2016, and cybercrime damage costs are set to hit a shocking $6 trillion annually by 2021. This paints a picture of our current computational infrastructure as terribly inadequate. As more aspects of our lives move online, security threats become more pronounced, and it only takes one data breach to break consumers’ trust in an institution. We need a software infrastructure that’s proven to be mathematically correct and is more secure due to its ability to identify malicious patterns before they pose a threat (obviously there is no such thing as 100% security though). AI and big data will complement each other and become the new face of consumer trust for organizations. In the same way that smartphones have become an extension of our persona, intelligent machines will become an extension of cybersecurity.

AI systems will help us expand our abilities into new realms to become certainly smarter, and hopefully wiser. We should stop worrying about intelligent machines and instead start cheerleading for the potential opportunities that they will offer. There is no need for gloom and doom; in fact, we should have a great sense of optimism for the next 5-10 years.

Let’s be thankful to machines as they have a penchant for helping us, and it would be foolhardy to move into the future without them.