The Future Computed, book review: AI and society, through a Microsoft lens

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The Future Computed: Artificial Intelligence and its role in society • By Microsoft with a foreword by Brad Smith and Harry Shum • Microsoft Corporation • 146 pages • ISBN 978-0-9997508-1-0 • free to download (PDF)

It’s time to wake up and smell the AI coffee, say Microsoft head lawyer Brad Smith and the leader of Microsoft’s AI research division Harry Shum, in their introduction to this book on the role of artificial intelligence in society.

They kick off with a look at how much daily life around the world has changed in the last 20 years, and speculating on how much it could change in the next two decades as we get proactive intelligent agents ready to smooth our path through the world.

This could involve buying presents on our behalf and booking dinner reservations for special occasions based on what our agents know about us and our nearest and dearest, or answering emails and creating task lists automatically by listening in on our meetings.

Smith and Shum envision a future that’s more convenient, but still very recognisable: gadgets may monitor your vital signs and suggest a checkup when they show something disturbing, but you’ll still have an appointment with a real doctor to talk about those measurements. However, it’ll be a virtual appointment, your medicine will arrive by drone and your agent will remind you when you should take it. And why will co-workers still be emailing to ask for updates that your intelligent agent can give them by checking the project timeline, when their agent could just look that up for them? Probably because people don’t change their habits that quickly.

If this seems like a less ambitious future than some, it might be because, for all the changes technology has made in our lives, much of it had already started to arrive 20 years ago. Email and the web were around in 1998 — they just weren’t ubiquitous. It’s also because Microsoft is firmly of the belief that AI is there to support, augment and amplify human abilities, rather than replace them. The examples of what AI is already doing — marking up CT and MRI scans as a tool to save oncologists time, analysing farm animal activity to spot an anthrax infection in time to contain the outbreak, AI tools in Windows and Office — are all different kinds of assistants to, rather than replacements for, people.

History lesson

The Future Computed puts AI in its historical context, starting with Turing and the 1956 Dartmouth College symposium, and pointing out that route planning and search engines, and post office systems that read hand-written addresses, have been using what we now call AI techniques for several years. It also gives non-experts a clear, if somewhat Microsoft-centric, explanation of how AI works and how well it already compares to humans.

The assessment of AI ability sometimes errs on the side of technological optimism: the “work [that] remains to be done to make these innovations applicable to everyday use” isn’t just dealing with noisy environment and accents, it’s understanding what words mean and what decisions to make based on those words. Or as the authors put it: “Today’s AI cannot yet begin to compete with a child’s ability to understand and interact with the world using senses such as touch, sight and smell. And AI systems have only the most rudimentary ability to understand human expression, tone, emotion and the subtleties of human interaction.”

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