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Lifestyle
Man and the Machine
A Chinese documentary provides fresh insight into AI and its limitations
By Li Fangfang | NO. 25 JUNE 22, 2017

A robot dinosaur staff in Japanese robot hotel Henn-na in Sasebo watches Yang Lan check in COURTESY OF (THE SUN MEDIA GROUP)

On an extraordinary day in March 2002, from a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in England, Kevin Warwick became a cyborg, the tribe of the fictional superhero who is half living flesh and half biomechatronic.

Yet the procedure was quite humdrum. Warwick quietly drove himself to the hospital where a chip was implanted in his left arm. It stayed connected to his nervous system for three months, in the process linking his nervous system to the Internet in Columbia University, New York City. The risky venture, in which he may have lost his arm, saw him being given a new name, Captain Cyborg.

During the experiment, Warwick could connect with a robotic hand at the University of Reading when he was in Columbia University. When he closed his hand in New York, brain signals transmitted across the Internet closed the robotic hand in England in mirrored action. His wife also had a similar chip implanted, which connected the couple's nervous systems.

"The next step is brain-to-brain communication," Warwick told Yang Lan, a celebrity presenter and founder of Sun Media Group, in the documentary In Search of Artificial Intelligence, which was broadcast in China in May.

The 10-episode documentary exhibits cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI) technologies through real-life incidents in which AI provides solutions to problems that seem insurmountable at first, such as a father with visual impairment being able to see his daughter again, and the survivor of a severe stroke overcoming depression and regaining his confidence after being able to use his eyes to give commands to his computer.

Besides extraordinary real-life cases, 80 experts from the top 30 AI labs worldwide explain AI principles in laymen's terms in the documentary so that people without any scientific background can understand them easily.

"A rare sci-tech documentary that [even] a liberal arts student can understand," a Chinese netizen with the user name Jianda-mao commented on Douban.com, a popular Chinese review website.

Tiny robots made by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory can get out things swallowed by kids like batteries (COURTESY OF THE SUN MEDIA GROUP)

Decoding AI

AI, generally conjuring up images of robots in people's minds, is the science and engineering of making intelligent computer programs and intelligent machines. The word first appeared in 1955, and experienced two waves in the 1960s and 1980s. Now the third wave has started, said Hu Yu, rotating Chairman at iFLYTEK, a Chinese company specializing in artificial speech technology.

From university labs to commercial applications, AI is booming, especially in research and application of voice identification and machine vision, a technology to make a computing device evaluate and identify images, both still and moving.

In March 2016, AlphaGo, Google's AI-based computer program to play Go, trumped South Korean master Lee Sedol 4-1. The feat was echoed this year when AlphaGo made a clean sweep over Chinese Ke Jie, the current world No. 1 Go player, and the excitement was reenacted when Yang's documentary was shown on Jiangsu TV and some online video websites in May, providing a comprehensive explanation of AI to the audience. The documentary was viewed tens of millions of times in just one month.

In the docudrama, Yang is an explorer exploring frontier applications of AI to solve mainstream social problems and having them explained by top scientists, analysts and entrepreneurs.

"AI is computer science, which makes shooting difficult," Zhang Min, a veteran director with the science and education channel of China Central Television, told Beijing Review. "The documentary is in the form of the presenter's exploration, accompanied with vivid cases which successfully avoid the boring part of scientific knowledge."

"The theme of this documentary sticks to topics of this era. It's not only appealing to scientists and amateurs, but also motivates society to explore AI," said a netizen with the user ID Jiuwuhou Xiaoqing.

Yang told The Beijing News that time was her enemy while making the documentary. "I had only five days to finish a dozen interviews which required coordinating many people's schedules to shoot in England," she said. The tight schedule meant she had to plunge into the most critical questions without wasting any time.

To make up for her lack of a technological background, Yang read dozens of books on AI. Though the pace drove her crazy, the many face-to-face interviews she had with scientists changed the stereotype of them she had harbored in her mind. "They are interesting people with distinct personalities and rich emotions," she said.

Doubts answered

Yang asked Warwick, aka Captain Cyborg, "Do you really want your wife to know all your thoughts?" He responded with a smile.

"Why is AI such a popular topic for Hollywood?" she asked Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman and Co-president of the Producers Guild of America, Lori McCreary.

What would the world of cyborgs be like? Sci-fi movies have pictured different versions, most of which are full of terror.

"I think people are nervous about having something they can talk to and that can speak back to them," McCreary said. "As the storyteller, we will always look into the dark corner to see if it's possible."

Yang had her own view by the time the documentary was finished: It's possible for machines to lose control due to human greed and malevolence, just like nuclear power, which generates electricity when used wisely but could become a deadly weapon as well.

Could AI take over human jobs? "There is a common theme that people worry that robots will take their jobs. But robots are going to backfill the work they don't want to [do] anymore," Rodney Brooks, co-founder of iRobot, an American technology company, said.

A team of researchers from Yale University and Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute set off to determine the answer. In May and June 2016, they polled over 350 industry leaders and academics and the findings, released in June, say AI-propelled devices will be capable of performing any task as well as or better than humans by 2060. By 2136, they will take over all human jobs.

But The New York Times' Pulitzer-winning reporter John Markoff takes that with a pinch of salt. He said any prediction beyond five to 10 years is science fiction. Humans' capability of prediction is around five years, and Yang agreed.

Last December, Yang gave a lecture on AI at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China in Chengdu, southwest China's Sichuan Province. She cited a famous conversation between Marvin Minsky, known as the father of AI, and Douglas Engelbart, the American engineer who invented the computer mouse.

Minsky was explaining to Engelbart all the wonderful things he was going to do with computers, such as making them intelligent and giving them emotions. Engelbart responded, "You're going to do that for computers? When are you going to do that for humans?"

"I ended my lecture with this conversation to express my wish for those who [will] probably further explore AI to keep humanistic concerns in mind," Yang said.

She regards AI as a mirror which reflects what people think about themselves. While a machine can play an advanced game of Go, emotional communication that people learn before the age of 6 is far beyond a machine's capability.

"Instinct, common sense, emotion and subconsciousness are huge [aspects] that AI can't [reproduce] in the near future," Yang told Southern Weekend. "It's the human imperfection that is so valuable. We should make every day valuable because we can't live forever."

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to lifangfang@bjreview.com

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