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This is part six of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing.
In February of this year, OpenAI, one of the foremost artificial intelligence labs in the world, announced that a team of researchers had built a powerful new text generator called the Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 2, or GPT-2 for short. The researchers used a reinforcement learning algorithm to train their system on a broad set of natural language processing (NLP) capabilities, including reading comprehension, machine translation, and the ability to generate long strings of coherent text.
But as is often the case with NLP technology, the tool held both great promise and great peril. Researchers and policy makers at the lab were concerned that their system, if widely released, could be exploited by bad actors and misappropriated for “malicious purposes.”
The people of OpenAI, which defines its mission as “discovering and enacting the path to safe artificial general intelligence,” were concerned that GPT-2 could be used to flood the Internet with fake text, thereby degrading an already fragile information ecosystem. For this reason, OpenAI decided that it would not release the full version of GPT-2 to the public or other researchers.
GPT-2 is an example of a technique in NLP called language modeling, whereby the computational system internalizes a statistical blueprint of a text so it’s able to mimic it. Just like the predictive text on your phone—which selects words based on words you’ve used before—GPT-2 can look at a string of text and then predict what the next word is likely to be based on the probabilities inherent in that text.
GPT-2 can be seen as a descendant of the statistical language modeling that the Russian mathematician A. A. Markov developed in the early 20th century (covered in part three of this series).
GPT-2 used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to do linguistic analysis with over 1.5 million parameters.
What’s different with GPT-2, though, is the scale of the textual data modeled by the system. Whereas Markov analyzed a string of 20,000 letters to create a rudimentary model that could predict the likelihood of the next letter of a text being a consonant or a vowel, GPT-2 used 8 million articles scraped from Reddit to predict what the next word might be within that entire dataset.
And whereas Markov manually trained his model by counting only two parameters—vowels and consonants—GPT-2 used cutting-edge machine learning algorithms to do linguistic analysis with over 1.5 million parameters, burning through huge amounts of computational power in the process.
The results were impressive. In their blog post, OpenAI reported that GPT-2 could generate synthetic text in response to prompts, mimicking whatever style of text it was shown. If you prompt the system with a line of William Blake’s poetry, it can generate a line back in the Romantic poet’s style. If you prompt the system with a cake recipe, you get a newly invented recipe in response.
Perhaps the most compelling feature of GPT-2 is that it can answer questions accurately. For example, when OpenAI researchers asked the system, “Who wrote the book The Origin of Species?”—it responded: “Charles Darwin.” While only able to respond accurately some of the time, the feature does seem to be a limited realization of Gottfried Leibniz’s dream of a language-generating machine that could answer any and all human questions (described in part two of this series).
After observing the power of the new system in practice, OpenAI elected not to release the fully trained model. In the lead up to its release in February, there had been heightened awareness about “deepfakes”—synthetic images and videos, generated via machine learning techniques, in which people do and say things they haven’t really done and said. Researchers at OpenAI worried that GPT-2 could be used to essentially create deepfake text, making it harder for people to trust textual information online.
Responses to this decision varied. On one hand, OpenAI’s caution prompted an overblown reaction in the media, with articles about the “dangerous” technology feeding into the Frankenstein narrative that often surrounds developments in AI.
Others took issue with OpenAI’s self-promotion, with some even suggesting that OpenAI purposefully exaggerated GPT-2s power in order to create hype—while contravening a norm in the AI research community, where labs routinely share data, code, and pre-trained models. As machine learning researcher Zachary Lipton tweeted, “Perhaps what's *most remarkable* about the @OpenAI controversy is how *unremarkable* the technology is. Despite their outsize attention & budget, the research itself is perfectly ordinary—right in the main branch of deep learning NLP research.”
OpenAI stood by its decision to release only a limited version of GPT-2, but has since released larger models for other researchers and the public to experiment with. As yet, there has been no reported case of a widely distributed fake news article generated by the system. But there have been a number of interesting spin-off projects, including GPT-2 poetry and a webpage where you can prompt the system with questions yourself.
Mimicking humans on Reddit, the bots have long conversations about a variety of topics, including conspiracy theories and
Star Wars movies.
There’s even a Reddit group populated entirely with text produced by GPT-2-powered bots. Mimicking humans on Reddit, the bots have long conversations about a variety of topics, including conspiracy theories and Star Wars movies.
This bot-powered conversation may signify the new condition of life online, where language is increasingly created by a combination of human and non-human agents, and where maintaining the distinction between human and non-human, despite our best efforts, is increasingly difficult.
The idea of using rules, mechanisms, and algorithms to generate language has inspired people in many different cultures throughout history. But it’s in the online world that this powerful form of wordcraft may really find its natural milieu—in an environment where the identity of speakers becomes more ambiguous, and perhaps, less relevant. It remains to be seen what the consequences will be for language, communication, and our sense of human identity, which is so bound up with our ability to speak in natural language.
This is the sixth installment of a six-part series on the history of natural language processing. Last week’s post explained how an innocent Microsoft chatbot turned instantly racist on Twitter.
You can also check out our prior series on the untold history of AI. Continue reading
Welcome to the eighth edition of IEEE Spectrum’s Robot Gift Guide!
This year we’re featuring 15 robotic products that we think will make fantastic holiday gifts. As always, we tried to include a broad range of robot types and prices, focusing mostly on items released this year. (A reminder: While we provide links to places where you can buy these items, we’re not endorsing any in particular, and a little bit of research may result in better deals.)
If you need even more robot gift ideas, take a look at our past guides: 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. Some of those robots are still great choices and might be way cheaper now than when we first posted about them. And if you have suggestions that you’d like to share, post a comment below to help the rest of us find the perfect robot gift.
What makes robots so compelling is their autonomy, and the Skydio 2 is one of the most autonomous robots we’ve ever seen. It uses an array of cameras to map its environment and avoid obstacles in real-time, making flight safe and effortless and enabling the kinds of shots that would be impossible otherwise. Seriously, this thing is magical, and it’s amazing that you can actually buy one.
UBTECH Jimu MeeBot 2
The Jimu MeeBot 2.0 from UBTECH is a STEM education robot designed to be easy to build and program. It includes six servo motors, a color sensor, and LED lights. An app for iPhone or iPad provides step-by-step 3D instructions, and helps you code different behaviors for the robot. It’s available exclusively from Apple.
iRobot Roomba s9+
We know that $1,400 is a crazy amount of money to spend on a robot vacuum, but the Roomba s9+ is a crazy robot vacuum. As if all of its sensors and mapping intelligence wasn’t enough, it empties itself, which means that you can have your floors vacuumed every single day for a month and you don’t have to even think about it. This is what home robots are supposed to be.
Photo: Piaggio Fast Forward
Nobody likes carrying things, which is why Gita is perfect for everyone with an extra $3,000 lying around. Developed by Piaggio Fast Forward, this autonomous robot will follow you around with a cargo hold full of your most important stuff, and do it in a way guaranteed to attract as much attention as possible.
DJI Mavic Mini
It’s tiny, it’s cheap, and it takes good pictures—what more could you ask for from a drone? And for $400, this is an excellent drone to get if you’re on a budget and comfortable with manual flight. Keep in mind that while the Mavic Mini is small enough that you don’t need to register it with the FAA, you do still need to follow all the same rules and regulations.
LEGO Star Wars Droid Commander
Designed for kids ages 8+, this LEGO set includes more than 1,000 pieces, enough to build three different droids: R2-D2, Gonk Droid, and Mouse Droid. Using a Bluetooth-controlled robotic brick called Move Hub, which connects to the LEGO BOOST Star Wars app, kids can change how the robots behave and solve challenges, learning basic robotics and coding skills.
Robot pets don’t get much more sophisticated (or expensive) than Sony’s Aibo. Strictly speaking, it’s one of the most complex consumer robots you can buy, and Sony continues to add to Aibo’s software. Recent new features include user programmability, and the ability to “feed” it.
$2,900 (free aibone and paw pads until 12/29/2019)
Neato Botvac D4 Connected
The Neato Botvac D4 may not have all of the features of its fancier and more expensive siblings, but it does have the features that you probably care the most about: The ability to make maps of its environment for intelligent cleaning (using lasers!), along with user-defined no-go lines that keep it where you want it. And it cleans quite well, too.
$530 $350 (sale)
Cubelets Curiosity Set
Photo: Modular Robotics
Cubelets are magnetic blocks that you can snap together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. The newest set, called Curiosity, is designed for kids ages 4+ and comes with 10 robotic cubes. These include light and distance sensors, motors, and a Bluetooth module, which connects the robot constructions to the Cubelets app.
Photo: Franklin Robotics
Tertill does one simple job: It weeds your garden. It’s waterproof, dirt proof, solar powered, and fully autonomous, meaning that you can leave it out in your garden all summer and just enjoy eating your plants rather than taking care of them.
Root was originally developed by Harvard University as a tool to help kids progressively learn to code. iRobot has taken over Root and is now supporting the curriculum, which starts for kids before they even know how to read and should keep them busy for years afterwards.
Let’s be honest: Nobody is really quite sure what LOVOT is. We can all agree that it’s kinda cute, though. And kinda weird. But cute. Created by Japanese robotics startup Groove X, LOVOT does have a whole bunch of tech packed into its bizarre little body and it will do its best to get you to love it.
RVR is a rugged, versatile, easy to program mobile robot. It’s a development platform designed to be a bridge between educational robots like Sphero and more sophisticated and expensive systems like Misty. It’s mostly affordable, very expandable, and comes from a company with a lot of experience making robots.
“How to Train Your Robot”
Image: Lawrence Hall of Science
Aimed at 4th and 5th graders, “How to Train Your Robot,” written by Blooma Goldberg, Ken Goldberg, and Ashley Chase, and illustrated by Dave Clegg, is a perfect introduction to robotics for kids who want to get started with designing and building robots. But the book isn’t just for beginners: It’s also a fun, inspiring read for kids who are already into robotics and want to go further—it even introduces concepts like computer simulations and deep learning. You can download a free digital copy or request hardcopies here.
MIT Mini Cheetah
Yes, Boston Dynamics’ Spot, now available for lease, is probably the world’s most famous quadruped, but MIT is starting to pump out Mini Cheetahs en masse for researchers, and while we’re not exactly sure how you’d manage to get one of these things short of stealing one directly for MIT, a Mini Cheetah is our fantasy robotics gift this year. Mini Cheetah looks like a ton of fun—it’s portable, highly dynamic, super rugged, and easy to control. We want one!
MIT Biomimetic Robotics Lab
For more tech gift ideas, see also IEEE Spectrum’s annual Gift Guide. Continue reading
This week at MIT, academics and industry officials compared notes, studies, and predictions about AI and the future of work. During the discussions, an insurance company executive shared details about one AI program that rolled out at his firm earlier this year. A chatbot the company introduced, the executive said, now handles 150,000 calls per month.
Later in the day, a panelist—David Fanning, founder of PBS’s Frontline—remarked that this statistic is emblematic of broader fears he saw when reporting a new Frontline documentary about AI. “People are scared,” Fanning said of the public’s AI anxiety.
Fanning was part of a daylong symposium about AI’s economic consequences—good, bad, and otherwise—convened by MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future.
“Dig into every industry, and you’ll find AI changing the nature of work,” said Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). She cited recent McKinsey research that found 45 percent of the work people are paid to do today can be automated with currently available technologies. Those activities, McKinsey found, represent some US $2 trillion in wages.
However, the threat of automation—whether by AI or other technologies—isn’t as new as technologists on America’s coasts seem to believe, said panelist Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase, Inc.
“If you live in Detroit or Toledo, where I come from, technology has been displacing jobs for the last half-century,” Goff said. “I don’t think that most people in this country have the increased anxiety that the coasts do, because they’ve been living this.”
Goff added that the challenge AI poses for the workforce is not, as he put it, “getting coal miners to code.” Rather, he said, as AI automates some jobs, it will also open opportunities for “reskilling” that may have nothing to do with AI or automation. He touted trade schools—teaching skills like welding, plumbing, and electrical work—and certification programs for sales industry software packages like Salesforce.
On the other hand, a documentarian who reported another recent program on AI—Krishna Andavolu, senior correspondent for Vice Media—said “reskilling” may not be an easy answer.
“People in rooms like this … don’t realize that a lot of people don’t want to work that much,” Andavolu said. “They’re not driven by passion for their career, they’re driven by passion for life. We’re telling a lot of these workers that they need to reskill. But to a lot of people that sounds like, ‘I’ve got to work twice as hard for what I have now.’ That sounds scary. We underestimate that at our peril.”
Part of the problem with “reskilling,” Andavolu said, is that some high-growth industries involve caregiving for seniors and in medical facilities—roles which are traditionally considered “feminized” careers. Destigmatizing these jobs, and increasing the pay to match the salaries of displaced jobs like long-haul truck drivers, is another challenge.
Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor of Economics, faulted the comparably slim funding of academic research into AI.
“There is nothing preordained about the progress of technology,” he said. Computers, the Internet, antibiotics, and sensors all grew out of government and academic research programs. What he called the “blue-sky thinking” of non-corporate AI research can also develop applications that are not purely focused on maximizing profits.
American companies, Acemoglu said, get tax breaks for capital R&D—but not for developing new technologies for their employees. “We turn around and [tell companies], ‘Use your technologies to empower workers,’” he said. “But why should they do that? Hiring workers is expensive in many ways. And we’re subsidizing capital.”
Said Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) Program, “Low and middle income workers have for over 30 years been experiencing stagnant and declining pay, shrinking benefits, and less power on the job. Now technology is brilliant at enabling scale. But the question we sit with is—how do we make sure that we’re not scaling these longstanding problems?”
Andrew McAfee, co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, said AI may not reduce the number of jobs available in the workplace today. But the quality of those jobs is another story. He cited the Dutch economist Jan Tinbergen who decades ago said that “Inequality is a race between technology and education.”
McAfee said, ultimately, the time to solve the economic problems AI poses for workers in the United States is when the U.S. economy is doing well—like right now.
“We do have the wind at our backs,” said Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future.
“We have some breathing room right now,” McAfee agreed. “Economic growth has been pretty good. Unemployment is pretty low. Interest rates are very, very low. We might not have that war chest in the future.” Continue reading