Watching the watchers


We have become used to the idea that ‘artificial’ indicates something which is less than the best. It’s a cheap substitute for the real thing, something to make do with. Given the choice, we would rather ski down a mountain in the Alps, rather than an artificial plastic ski slope. And does anyone give artificial flowers on Mother’s Day? No, I thought not.

When it comes to Artificial Intelligence, I think we have a similar sense that AI is not the real thing. How can it be as effective as the brains we carry around in our heads, which have been developed by millions of years of evolution? Well here’s the kicker: not only is AI as good as our own mental processes, but in many cases much better. This isn’t science fiction – it’s science fact, right now.

I was thinking of this as I made my way through several airports last week, knowing that every step of the way I could be watched by security cameras. I’m happy about that because it means the bad guys can also be watched by security cameras, which means that in airports, shopping malls and other public spaces around the world we are a little bit more protected. The problem is that there’s one very weak link in this security chain, and that’s the human part, which monitors the output of all the millions of cameras and listening devices.

All those devices are hardwired to banks of monitors, which allow comprehensive viewing of everything which happens in a building. And sitting watching the monitors are… human beings. Let us suppose that these are very well-trained and dedicated human beings, who really care about doing a great job. Even then we know that their attention will regularly be lost, as they talk to each other about last night’s football match, or flip through the latest Facebook postings. They’ll get up to stretch their legs, or make some coffee, and every time they lose concentration, which opens the possibility for something bad to go undetected. I’m a big fan of the Pareto Principle, so I’m going to make a wild guess that for 20% of the time security systems are ineffective due to the humans who are supposed to be overseeing the system having their minds on other things.

Now compare this to the same scenario, but with the watching and listening being done by AI. AI doesn’t get tired or bored, and – as far as we know – AI doesn’t as yet need to check Facebook. AI doesn’t need coffee or toilet breaks, and is perfectly happy to work 24/7. What’s more, AI is also self-monitoring so that if something isn’t right with the system it will let its human masters know. Very few humans will do that because they’ll risk losing a day’s pay if they report that they’re not feeling up to par. So it’s clear that artificial monitoring is better than the real thing in the case of security applications, and with AI there’s also the potential for continuous high speed learning.

When we look across the board at almost any industry, the fact is that AI is likely to do the job better, or at least as well as the human option. For example AI surgery can call on every known fact ever to diagnose conditions and then enact the correct procedure. AI programs are already able to analyze writing styles and create entirely credible new versions of a famous author’s work, and how long before AI is coupled with a robotic painting arm to produce new and entirely believable Van Gogh and Picasso works? They will be fakes, by the normal definition, but will they be inferior? – Probably not. In fact it’s possible to imagine works which could have existed, if the painter or author had continued to live. AI can generate Shakespeare’s final masterpiece, or follow up on what Einstein may have thought next.

This isn’t just speculation, because AI is here now and changing our world faster and more comprehensively than many of us realize. On my trip through the airports of America last week, AI facial recognition opened barriers for me, while my phone suggested places to eat, based on my known preferences. I also sent messages to colleagues which autocomplete raced to finish, almost faster than I was thinking what I wanted to say! That’s all AI, but it’s just a fraction of what’s going on under the surface. These changes are advancing on us at a very fast rate. Just think of how only a few years ago the idea of having an intelligible ‘conversation’ with your mobile device would seem like far-future daydreaming.

What does this mean for all of us in the cryptoverse and investment world? For me the lesson is that AI is here and in our lives right now, and we better get used to it, and really start to understand how we are changing our own relationship to the world. For centuries humans have believed that we’re the smartest beings on the planet, and now, by some measures we are not. The metrics and ‘grunt work’ in the cryptoverse will increasingly be done by AI, Machine Learning, and Deep Learning, because it is quicker and more accurate. What the machines won’t do – for now at least – is to assess the Human Factors which go to make a business a success, and that’s an area which requires increasing study. Perhaps by the time AI systems do start checking their own Facebook pages I may have to revise my opinion, but until then I’m sticking with it!

For some in-depth thinking by futurist Jaan Tallinn, start at:

For a recent thought piece, go to:

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