This is the editor’s letter for the May 2018 edition of CanadianCIO.
If we push artificial intelligence across the uncanny valley, what fate awaits us on the other side?
Given what we’re seeing from Google Duplex, we might be very close to finding out. Demonstrated at Google’s IO conference just last week, Duplex is a new natural language processing system that can imitate a person and hold simple conversations for the purpose of booking appointments. It’s a new feature for Google Assistant that the search giant says it will be testing live in the field starting this summer. But it’s also a much more significant moment for computing.
In another talk at Google IO, Alphabet chairman John Hennessy (Alphabet is Google’s parent corporation) said that Duplex passes the Turing test when it comes to the task of making appointments. Developed in 1950 by British computer scientist Alan Turing, the test was designed to see if a human could be fooled into thinking a computer was human.
In the samples of Duplex played on stage at Google IO, the algorithm-created voices sounded completely human and natural. There are ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, and pauses and emphasis in the voice. The humans on the other end of the interaction thought nothing of having the conversation required to schedule an appointment for a haircut.
Even if it’s limited in terms of the scope in passing the Turing test, the fact Duplex tricked human beings is evocative of some sci-fi dystopias we’ve seen depicted in fiction. In Blade Runner, replicants are fabricated organisms that can’t be distinguished from human beings unless they’re subjected to a Voight-Kampff test. In Battlestar Galactica, Cylons are synthetic lifeforms that easily pass as human. In both of these imaginary futures, humans are living a bleak existence or not living at all.
But if the public policy leaders that want to apply AI in a way that’s guided by a set of ethical standards, we might just avoid a future where our own artificial creations seek to annihilate us. The new Government of Canada CIO Alex Benay has reached beyond his own role by helping to form the CIO Strategy Council, where AI ethics were a focus of discussion. The former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Ann Cavoukian, is expanding her internationally-lauded Privacy by Design principles to include AI ethics principles.
Already, these public leaders are helping to make those applying AI more conscientious about the risks. When I was speaking with City of Mississauga CIO Shawn Slack this week, he mentioned that he’d seen Cavoukian’s ethics principles and planned to use them as a guiding light as his team adopted AI.
If all CIOs are equally as moral as their organizations adopt AI, then we might just have a chance against the robots. Then when we find ourselves on the other side of the uncanny valley, we’ll enjoy green pastures rather than a silicon wasteland.