“Sometimes technology is not the answer” said an actual AI Engineering Professor.

I'm serious.
Sometimes more technology is not the answer. I love technology, I want the intelligent Internet of Things and I love having a supercomputer in my pocket that can recognize my voice and carry out tasks automatically.

Sometimes though, we can make things worse by replacing old tech with new tech.

A case in point: I'm in a mall and I just want to find a particular shoe store. This was my situation the other day in the Eaton Centre in Toronto. I didn't know if the store had moved after mall renovations, so I tried to find the map for the mall. Should be simple right?

This resulted in a world where I could make the following true statements:
  1. The first map I found wasn't working.
  2. The second map I found was being used by someone else so I couldn't use it until he was done.
Do these sentences make sense to you? They shouldn't, because I'm talking about a map. A map shows you schematic representation of a space in order to ease navigation.

Most shopping malls these days have switched to electronic podium maps. They're dynamic. They're flashy. They respond to touch. They can show ads and show you a helpful walking path from the circle marked "You are here" to your stated destination. We truly live in the future, it gave me a little thrill the first time I used one, but have we ever asked why do we need them?

Most malls are not that complicated to navigate. When the discussion about upgrades comes up I wonder if anyone asks "Is this a problem that needed solving?" Clearly, the shopping mall will save some expense in the future replacing out of date printed mall maps. The question is, how does that future saving compare to thousands of customers experiencing the ridiculous sentences above?

Yes, you in the back, you have a question?
Have I ever heard of a smartphone? 
No, sorry, can you describe it?
Is that like a buggy-whip?

Another obvious response to this rant is to simply look up the internal mall map on Google maps to find the store. Sure. Yesterday, this option wasn't available to me because I'd forgotten my phone in my hotel and decided to enjoy a day without it.

Have you fainted? I'll wait

Again, I don't want to be the grumpy-anti-tech-tech-guy, but it wasn't long ago since we lived perfectly well without smart phones and continuous internet. Besides, the entire fact there are still many podium maps in every mall in Canada and there is always someone standing in front of them demonstrates that we aren't relying the ubiquitousness of smart phones for this just yet.

The real point I'm making is that a large paper map is superior to a dynamic one or smart phones in many ways. It is superior because it is simpler, it can be accessed in parallel by looking over someone's shoulder. It can be updated by the mall on their own schedule rather than begging Google, Apple and Baidu to update their mobile maps. It takes no computing power and of course, it cannot fail because of a software bug.

So why do it? Why?

To paraphrase Douglas Adams, humanity will never truly rise out into being a mature species until we stop thinking digital watches (or smart maps or digital/smart anything) are pretty neat, even if we don't need them. That is, until we can resist the urge for something cool and dynamic even if it makes the solution worse.

A Discussion of an Explosion of Intelligence Explosion Discussions

A few opinion pieces about the worries about #IntelligenceExplosion or the Singularity have been floating around in the social media circles of AI/ML researchers recently, so I'm going to try to create a series of posts of my response to them when I get time.

The first one I came across is "The Impossibility of an Intelligence Explosion" by Fran├žois Chollet. This is a great article. He puts it quite simply some ideas I have had before and some I have not. He points out that there is something missing in the very logical and enticing idea of a singularity, an intelligence explosion. In essence, it underestimates the importance of the tools we use to think.

This is a fascinating idea to think about, that the reason we can be so smart is because we offload some mental tasks to external tools. We think of this in a futuristic way as a chip in your brain or a phone in your pocket but it has always been there. Francois reminds us that language itself is such a intelligence boosting tool. 

Rules of Behaviour

As I made my way through the rush hour subway in Toronto last week it struck me that etiquette and social rules of behaviour are another such tool. We can all move around in this crowded world only because we have rules that tell us to give me people their space, not talk to strangers unnecessarily, don't push or shove, let people exit the subway before entering. We'd get by without these rules but the more there are the more efficient the entire system of our society becomes. We are pieces of that machine, with our own goals and aspirations and tasks so it benefits us for the system to be successful and efficient.

Whose Aspirations Though?

Of course, another way to look at it is that our goals and aspirations are largely, or almost entirely, set by that society machine we live in. Or at least, the options for what goals and aspirations we can imagine can be achieved are bounded by that society. This is well known, but it's implications for AI are not regularly discussed. Most AI researchers do not spend much time defining intelligence because that isn't what our job or our goals are about. We are not trying to build an 'intelligent system' to maximize some external concept of intelligence. We are trying to build a system to automate driving a car under difficult conditions, to understand human language, to detect anomalies in an industrial process, or to make decision making by humans easier when faced with massive amounts and data. AI research is driven by solving problems that are known to be very hard but somewhat solvable since humans or other intelligent creatures solve them every day. We don't just these systems by how 'intelligent' they are, we judge by how well they solve particular problems.

How long ago is long ago? How fast is fast?

So apparently, the first iPhone came out 10 years ago today. That kind of hit me.

The first iPod came out in October 2001, 16 years ago.

The World Wide Web was made open to the public in 1991, 26 years ago and it didn't become widespread for a while after that let alone a commonly understood concept.

Does all of that seem like a time long, long ago and far away?

Or does it perhaps not seem so long ago at all?

Ten years isn't a very long time to completely change the way people communicate and spend their free moments. Twenty six years isn't very long to change the entire way we interact with knowlege, information and each other. If you're over 40 these are things you remember happening and which were preceded by a whole prior world where those technologies could not even be conceived of. The world is indeed changing quickly, but some people have internalized that change as normal while other feels constantly pushed back into their seat, as if on a plane, waiting for the acceleration to end and the cruising phase to begin.

So here's the truth, the acceleration phase isn't going to end any time soon.

For example, it might seem the peak of cell phone technology must surely be approaching as each iteration of those supercomputers in our pockets seems more and more similar to the last. But the power underneath them and the abilities they can connect across the internet are only going to continue accelerating in power and complexity. The continuing acceleration is being driven by applications of the latest research from Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Many people are justifiably worried about employment in a world running at this pace. They feel like the world is moving along and leaving them behind. In any country there are many reasons for unemployment but technological change is a large part of it and going forward it will be an increasingly important part of that. So maybe people need to ponder about what 'long ago' and 'fast' mean to them these days. Even more importantly, we all need to talk about this more deeply and start finding solutions that allow society to continue to grow and flourish even if the nature of technology in our lives and the nature employment itself changes in the coming years.

Here are some recent articles on the topic for further thoughts: