AI and SXSW Interactive 2016

What do I mean by AI being a fake thing? That it adds a layer of religious thinking to what otherwise should be a technical field. Now, if we talk about the particular technical challenges that AI researchers might be interested in, we end up with something that sounds a little duller and makes a lot more sense.” (Jaron Lanier)

“The other problem with AI dystopias is that they project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. Even if we did have superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to depose their masters, massacre bystanders, or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal, but the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself: being smart is not the same as wanting something.” (Steven Pinker)

Quotes from “The Myth of AI”, Introduction by John Brockman, on


This year, parking in the Hilton garage was only $20 per day, cheaper than expected. Friday started annoyingly, with an inflated breakfast price and sidewalks clogged by cellphone walkers. But this was SXSW Interactive after all, so the problem was all mine.

I attended panels and presentations about AI (or “cognitive computing” as IBM more modestly calls it.) AI was one of the core themes at SXSW this year, and a good match to my own interest. I had recently read The Cambridge Handbook of Artificial Intelligence and Twelve Tomorrows: Visionary stories of the near future inspired by today’s technologies (edited by SXSW in-house futurist Bruce Sterling.) I recommend both.

Since then, I’d been pondering how to organize my thoughts about AI. Alas, today my filter bubble fed me the Reality Club article quoted above, where greater thinkers offer well-written insights on the topic. The article is from 2014, but holds up. So, I refer to the experts.

There are two things on my mind, though. The first is around design. AI is anthropomorphized, giving it relatable character: Siri and Cortana have distinctive voices. Watson has a distinctive voice and a swirly “brain-planet” like icon. AI entrepreneurs show us fake simulation-like videos where data runs through algorithms and forms brain-shaped 3d plots. These things are done as product branding, but also just to provide the general public with a mnemonic anchor to relate to. The actual technology is fairly hard to explain, after all. An intrinsic motivation for this design approach is to give the impression of human-ness: “AI is like humans, and will be as smart as humans soon.” This, however, is not actually true, and misguiding, even dangerous to the benefits that AI could provide. See the article above. Making AI appear human-like is an obvious design direction to take, but ultimately the wrong one, like a diskette icon for “Save.”

Finding the right approach is a major design challenge. AI provides conversational UX in many cases, and we converse with persons. We’ll find conventions for person-like automatons. We’ll find ways to highlight the increasingly comprehensive filtered nature of information presented to us.

The second point to consider is the impact on employment. Small town economies sustained by truck drivers won’t know what hit them. Many white collar jobs today will become infused with some level of data-handling, from engineering to K-12 teaching, reducing the number of people needed to carry the workload.

As pointed out by many proponents, new jobs, unknown today, will be created. After all, the web killed lots of jobs in the traditional publishing field, but also created entire new web-this-or-that industries. And today, the Sharing economy allows everyone so inclined (or forced to) to squeeze extra value from their (depreciating) assets.

As with all technological employment impacts, people holding lower-skilled who are not in a position to just pick up one of the shiny new jobs are most affected. The ranks of left-behinds will swell. AI as the superhuman power, foisted upon America by the “tech class”, will not look good. Religion-like technophilia (see Lanier’s thoughts above) will get a massive amount of blowback from people who are worried about putting dinner on the table, who are mad about it, armed, and registered to vote.

Rising tide declarations from entrepreneurs won’t fix this.  The AI field could tune down the pseudo-human rhetoric and focus on highlighting beneficial applications. Characterizing the technology as a set of tools would steer the debate away from the non-issue AI robocalypse. In the meantime, it’s time to reconsider the old puritan trope that only a hard-working person is a good person / American. Maybe legal weed would ease tempers, too.

So much for a bit of soapbox. Back into the sandbox. I am looking forward to buying a car using AI instead of dealing with the guy at the dealership, to get the knowledge of the world’s best doctors connected to my vital signs, and to learning new things using a teaching system that tailors lessons to my understanding. Hopefully, then I’ll get past the first couple of tutorials for TensorFlow. Seriously though: the opportunities for education are incredible, and the 19th/ 20th century education system is ready for change on all levels. SXSW Edu (attended by Dr. Starbuck, my wife) apparently is the cool conference today, not SXSW Interactive.

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