The Difficulty in Talking about AI

Automation and AI are important topics to discuss. One major aspect is what we will do about the increasing unemployment once jobs currently done by humans are increasingly done by automation. Of course, this is a discussion that seems largely unnoticed by the people who should be most concerned.

But among techno-optimists and luddites alike, the main challenge about these conversations is that it’s not clear what the technology is capable of, what it will be capable in any given timeframe, and if there are any limits to it at all. Both parties seem to make the assumption that anything is possible. And that given time, any task can be automated.

Now, I don’t know much about the subject, but I have read a little about the progress of this technology. One of the things I noticed is the fact that the computers have a very narrow understanding about many things. The detection of disease in plants is determined by the color and texture of the leaves. A self-driving car determines the lanes of a road by reducing a photo to a monochromatic image that has a difficult time with shadows. I became aware of the fact that computers have their own set of limitations.

More generally, it seems that since algorithms require some end, open-ended projects would be limited. For example, if you want an algorithm to record what’s interesting during a sports game, then you would need an a priori way of determining what’s “interesting” (which could be conducted with a separate algorithm), but it wouldn’t understand something unexpected if it’s not within the parameters set forth.

Or would it? I don’t know. The trouble with talking about automation is that the details matter, and it’s not clear how much I or the next person knows about the matter.


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