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As artificial intelligence systems take on more tasks and solve more problems, it’s hard to say which is rising faster: our interest in them or our fear of them. Futurist Ray Kurzweil famously predicted that “By 2029, computers will have emotional intelligence and be convincing as people.”
We don’t know how accurate this prediction will turn out to be. Even if it takes more than 10 years, though, is it really possible for machines to become conscious? If the machines Kurzweil describes say they’re conscious, does that mean they actually are?
Perhaps a more relevant question at this juncture is: what is consciousness, and how do we replicate it if we don’t understand it?
In a panel discussion at South By Southwest titled “How AI Will Design the Human Future,” experts from academia and industry discussed these questions and more.
Wait, What Is AI?
Most of AI’s recent feats—diagnosing illnesses, participating in debate, writing realistic text—involve machine learning, which uses statistics to find patterns in large datasets then uses those patterns to make predictions. However, “AI” has been used to refer to everything from basic software automation and algorithms to advanced machine learning and deep learning.
“The term ‘artificial intelligence’ is thrown around constantly and often incorrectly,” said Jennifer Strong, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and host of the podcast “The Future of Everything.” Indeed, one study found that 40 percent of European companies that claim to be working on or using AI don’t actually use it at all.
Dr. Peter Stone, associate chair of computer science at UT Austin, was the study panel chair on the 2016 One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (or AI100) report. Based out of Stanford University, AI100 is studying and anticipating how AI will impact our work, our cities, and our lives.
“One of the first things we had to do was define AI,” Stone said. They defined it as a collection of different technologies inspired by the human brain to be able to perceive their surrounding environment and figure out what actions to take given these inputs.
Modeling on the Unknown
Here’s the crazy thing about that definition (and about AI itself): we’re essentially trying to re-create the abilities of the human brain without having anything close to a thorough understanding of how the human brain works.
“We’re starting to pair our brains with computers, but brains don’t understand computers and computers don’t understand brains,” Stone said. Dr. Heather Berlin, cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, agreed. “It’s still one of the greatest mysteries how this three-pound piece of matter can give us all our subjective experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” she said.
This isn’t to say we’re not making progress; there have been significant neuroscience breakthroughs in recent years. “This has been the stuff of science fiction for a long time, but now there’s active work being done in this area,” said Amir Husain, CEO and founder of Austin-based AI company Spark Cognition.
Advances in brain-machine interfaces show just how much more we understand the brain now than we did even a few years ago. Neural implants are being used to restore communication or movement capabilities in people who’ve been impaired by injury or illness. Scientists have been able to transfer signals from the brain to prosthetic limbs and stimulate specific circuits in the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson’s, PTSD, and depression.
But much of the brain’s inner workings remain a deep, dark mystery—one that will have to be further solved if we’re ever to get from narrow AI, which refers to systems that can perform specific tasks and is where the technology stands today, to artificial general intelligence, or systems that possess the same intelligence level and learning capabilities as humans.
The biggest question that arises here, and one that’s become a popular theme across stories and films, is if machines achieve human-level general intelligence, does that also mean they’d be conscious?
Wait, What Is Consciousness?
As valuable as the knowledge we’ve accumulated about the brain is, it seems like nothing more than a collection of disparate facts when we try to put it all together to understand consciousness.
“If you can replace one neuron with a silicon chip that can do the same function, then replace another neuron, and another—at what point are you still you?” Berlin asked. “These systems will be able to pass the Turing test, so we’re going to need another concept of how to measure consciousness.”
Is consciousness a measurable phenomenon, though? Rather than progressing by degrees or moving through some gray area, isn’t it pretty black and white—a being is either conscious or it isn’t?
This may be an outmoded way of thinking, according to Berlin. “It used to be that only philosophers could study consciousness, but now we can study it from a scientific perspective,” she said. “We can measure changes in neural pathways. It’s subjective, but depends on reportability.”
She described three levels of consciousness: pure subjective experience (“Look, the sky is blue”), awareness of one’s own subjective experience (“Oh, it’s me that’s seeing the blue sky”), and relating one subjective experience to another (“The blue sky reminds me of a blue ocean”).
“These subjective states exist all the way down the animal kingdom. As humans we have a sense of self that gives us another depth to that experience, but it’s not necessary for pure sensation,” Berlin said.
Husain took this definition a few steps farther. “It’s this self-awareness, this idea that I exist separate from everything else and that I can model myself,” he said. “Human brains have a wonderful simulator. They can propose a course of action virtually, in their minds, and see how things play out. The ability to include yourself as an actor means you’re running a computation on the idea of yourself.”
Most of the decisions we make involve envisioning different outcomes, thinking about how each outcome would affect us, and choosing which outcome we’d most prefer.
“Complex tasks you want to achieve in the world are tied to your ability to foresee the future, at least based on some mental model,” Husain said. “With that view, I as an AI practitioner don’t see a problem implementing that type of consciousness.”
Moving Forward Cautiously (But Not too Cautiously)
To be clear, we’re nowhere near machines achieving artificial general intelligence or consciousness, and whether a “conscious machine” is possible—not to mention necessary or desirable—is still very much up for debate.
As machine intelligence continues to advance, though, we’ll need to walk the line between progress and risk management carefully.
Improving the transparency and explainability of AI systems is one crucial goal AI developers and researchers are zeroing in on. Especially in applications that could mean the difference between life and death, AI shouldn’t advance without people being able to trace how it’s making decisions and reaching conclusions.
Medicine is a prime example. “There are already advances that could save lives, but they’re not being used because they’re not trusted by doctors and nurses,” said Stone. “We need to make sure there’s transparency.” Demanding too much transparency would also be a mistake, though, because it will hinder the development of systems that could at best save lives and at worst improve efficiency and free up doctors to have more face time with patients.
Similarly, self-driving cars have great potential to reduce deaths from traffic fatalities. But even though humans cause thousands of deadly crashes every day, we’re terrified by the idea of self-driving cars that are anything less than perfect. “If we only accept autonomous cars when there’s zero probability of an accident, then we will never accept them,” Stone said. “Yet we give 16-year-olds the chance to take a road test with no idea what’s going on in their brains.”
This brings us back to the fact that, in building tech modeled after the human brain—which has evolved over millions of years—we’re working towards an end whose means we don’t fully comprehend, be it something as basic as choosing when to brake or accelerate or something as complex as measuring consciousness.
“We shouldn’t charge ahead and do things just because we can,” Stone said. “The technology can be very powerful, which is exciting, but we have to consider its implications.”
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Today, over 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone with access to the world’s information and near-limitless learning resources.
Yet nearly 36 million adults in the US are constrained by low literacy skills, excluding them from professional opportunities, prospects of upward mobility, and full engagement with their children’s education.
And beyond its direct impact, low literacy rates affect us all. Improving literacy among adults is predicted to save $230 billion in national healthcare costs and could result in US labor productivity increases of up to 2.5 percent.
Across the board, exponential technologies are making demonetized learning tools, digital training platforms, and literacy solutions more accessible than ever before.
With rising automation and major paradigm shifts underway in the job market, these tools not only promise to make today’s workforce more versatile, but could play an invaluable role in breaking the poverty cycles often associated with low literacy.
Just three years ago, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation joined forces to tackle this intractable problem, launching a $7 million Adult Literacy XPRIZE.
Challenging teams to develop smartphone apps that significantly increase literacy skills among adult learners in just 12 months, the competition brought five prize teams to the fore, each targeting multiple demographics across the nation.
Now, after four years of research, prototyping, testing, and evaluation, XPRIZE has just this week announced two grand prize winners: Learning Upgrade and People ForWords.
In this blog, I’ll be exploring the nuts and bolts of our two winning teams and how exponential technologies are beginning to address rapidly shifting workforce demands.
Meeting 100 percent adult literacy rates
Retooling today’s workforce for tomorrow’s job market
Granting the gift of lifelong learning
Let’s dive in.
Adult Literacy XPRIZE
Emphasizing the importance of accessible mediums and scalability, the Adult Literacy XPRIZE called for teams to create mobile solutions that lower the barrier to entry, encourage persistence, develop relevant learning content, and can scale nationally.
Outperforming the competition in two key demographic groups in aggregate—native English speakers and English language learners—teams Learning Upgrade and People ForWords together claimed the prize.
To win, both organizations successfully generated the greatest gains between a pre- and post-test, administered one year apart to learners in a 12-month field test across Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia.
Prize money in hand, Learning Upgrade and People ForWords are now scaling up their solutions, each targeting a key demographic in America’s pursuit of adult literacy.
Based in San Diego, Learning Upgrade has developed an Android and iOS app that helps students learn English and math through video, songs, and gamification. Offering a total of 21 courses from kindergarten through adult education, Learning Upgrade touts a growing platform of over 900 lessons spanning English, reading, math, and even GED prep.
To further personalize each student’s learning, Learning Upgrade measures time-on-task and builds out formative performance assessments, granting teachers a quantified, real-time view of each student’s progress across both lessons and criteria.
Specialized in English reading skills, Dallas-based People ForWords offers a similarly delocalized model with its mobile game “Codex: Lost Words of Atlantis.” Based on an archaeological adventure storyline, the app features an immersive virtual environment.
Set in the Atlantis Library (now with a 3D rendering underway), Codex takes its students through narrative-peppered lessons covering everything from letter-sound practice to vocabulary reinforcement in a hidden object game.
But while both mobile apps have recruited initial piloting populations, the key to success is scale.
Using a similar incentive prize competition structure to drive recruitment, the second phase of the XPRIZE is a $1 million Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE Communities Competition. For 15 months, the competition will challenge organizations, communities, and individuals alike to onboard adult learners onto both prize-winning platforms and fellow finalist team apps, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed.
Each awarded $125,000 for participation in the Communities Competition, AmritaCREATE and Cell-Ed bring yet other nuanced advantages to the table.
While AmritaCREATE curates culturally appropriate e-content relevant to given life skills, Cell-Ed takes a learn-on-the-go approach, offering micro-lessons, on-demand essential skills training, and individualized coaching on any mobile device, no internet required.
Although all these cases target slightly different demographics and problem niches, they converge upon common phenomena: mobility, efficiency, life skill relevance, personalized learning, and practicability.
And what better to scale these benefits than AI and immersive virtual environments?
In the case of education’s growing mobility, 5G and the explosion of connectivity speeds will continue to drive a learn-anytime-anywhere education model, whereby adult users learn on the fly, untethered to web access or rigid time strictures.
As I’ve explored in a previous blog on AI-crowd collaboration, we might also see the rise of AI learning consultants responsible for processing data on how you learn.
Quantifying and analyzing your interaction with course modules, where you get stuck, where you thrive, and what tools cause you ease or frustration, each user’s AI trainer might then issue personalized recommendations based on crowd feedback.
Adding a human touch, each app’s hired teaching consultants would thereby be freed to track many more students’ progress at once, vetting AI-generated tips and adjustments, and offering life coaching along the way.
Lastly, virtual learning environments—and, one day, immersive VR—will facilitate both speed and retention, two of the most critical constraints as learners age.
As I often reference, people generally remember only 10 percent of what we see, 20 percent of what we hear, and 30 percent of what we read…. But over a staggering 90 percent of what we do or experience.
By introducing gamification, immersive testing activities, and visually rich sensory environments, adult literacy platforms have a winning chance at scalability, retention, and user persistence.
Exponential Tools: Training and Retooling a Dynamic Workforce
Beyond literacy, however, virtual and augmented reality have already begun disrupting the professional training market.
As projected by ABI Research, the enterprise VR training market is on track to exceed $6.3 billion in value by 2022.
Leading the charge, Walmart has already implemented VR across 200 Academy training centers, running over 45 modules and simulating everything from unusual customer requests to a Black Friday shopping rush.
Then in September of last year, Walmart committed to a 17,000-headset order of the Oculus Go to equip every US Supercenter, neighborhood market, and discount store with VR-based employee training.
In the engineering world, Bell Helicopter is using VR to massively expedite development and testing of its latest aircraft, FCX-001. Partnering with Sector 5 Digital and HTC VIVE, Bell found it could concentrate a typical six-year aircraft design process into the course of six months, turning physical mockups into CAD-designed virtual replicas.
But beyond the design process itself, Bell is now one of a slew of companies pioneering VR pilot tests and simulations with real-world accuracy. Seated in a true-to-life virtual cockpit, pilots have now tested countless iterations of the FCX-001 in virtual flight, drawing directly onto the 3D model and enacting aircraft modifications in real time.
And in an expansion of our virtual senses, several key players are already working on haptic feedback. In the case of VR flight, French company Go Touch VR is now partnering with software developer FlyInside on fingertip-mounted haptic tech for aviation.
Dramatically reducing time and trouble required for VR-testing pilots, they aim to give touch-based confirmation of every switch and dial activated on virtual flights, just as one would experience in a full-sized cockpit mockup. Replicating texture, stiffness, and even the sensation of holding an object, these piloted devices contain a suite of actuators to simulate everything from a light touch to higher-pressured contact, all controlled by gaze and finger movements.
When it comes to other high-risk simulations, virtual and augmented reality have barely scratched the surface.
Firefighters can now combat virtual wildfires with new platforms like FLAIM Trainer or TargetSolutions. And thanks to the expansion of medical AR/VR services like 3D4Medical or Echopixel, surgeons might soon perform operations on annotated organs and magnified incision sites, speeding up reaction times and vastly improving precision.
But perhaps most urgently, virtual reality will offer an immediate solution to today’s constant industry turnover and large-scale re-education demands.
VR educational facilities with exact replicas of anything from large industrial equipment to minute circuitry will soon give anyone a second chance at the 21st-century job market.
Want to become an electric, autonomous vehicle mechanic at age 44? Throw on a demonetized VR module and learn by doing, testing your prototype iterations at almost zero cost and with no risk of harming others.
Want to be a plasma physicist and play around with a virtual nuclear fusion reactor? Now you’ll be able to simulate results and test out different tweaks, logging Smart Educational Record credits in the process.
As tomorrow’s career model shifts from a “one-and-done graduate degree” to continuous lifelong education, professional VR-based re-education will allow for a continuous education loop, reducing the barrier to entry for anyone wanting to try their hand at a new industry.
Learn Anything, Anytime, at Any Age
As VR and artificial intelligence converge with demonetized mobile connectivity, we are finally witnessing an era in which no one will be left behind.
Whether in pursuit of fundamental life skills, professional training, linguistic competence, or specialized retooling, users of all ages, career paths, income brackets, and goals are now encouraged to be students, no longer condemned to stagnancy.
Traditional constraints need no longer prevent non-native speakers from gaining an equal foothold, or specialists from pivoting into new professions, or low-income parents from staking new career paths.
As exponential technologies drive democratized access, bolstering initiatives such as the Barbara Bush Foundation Adult Literacy XPRIZE are blazing the trail to make education a scalable priority for all.
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