RISE OF THE MACHINES

March 20, 2017


Movie making today is truly remarkable.  To me, one of the very best parts is animation created by computer graphics.  I’ve attended “B” movies just to see the graphic displays created by talented programmers.  The “Terminator” series, at least the first movie in that series, really captures the creative essence of graphic design technology.  I won’t replay the movie for you but, the “terminator” goes back in time to carry out its prime directive—Kill John Conner.  The terminator, a robotic humanoid, has decision-making capability as well as human-like mobility that allows the plot to unfold.  Artificial intelligence or AI is a fascinating technology many companies are working on today.  Let’s get a proper definition of AI as follows:

“the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making, and translation between languages.”

Question:  Are Siri, Cortana, and Alexa eventually going to be more literate than humans? Anyone excited about the recent advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning should also be concerned about human literacy as well. That’s according to Protect Literacy , a global campaign, backed by education company Pearson, aimed at creating awareness and fighting against illiteracy.

Project Literacy, which has been raising awareness for its cause at SXSW 2017, recently released a report, “ 2027: Human vs. Machine Literacy ,” that projects machines powered by AI and voice recognition will surpass the literacy levels of one in seven American adults in the next ten (10) years. “While these systems currently have a much shallower understanding of language than people do, they can already perform tasks similar to simple text search task…exceeding the abilities of millions of people who are nonliterate,” Kate James, Project Literacy spokesperson and Chief Corporate Affairs and Global Marketing Officer at Pearson, wrote in the report. In light of this the organization is calling for “society to commit to upgrading its people at the same rate as upgrading its technology, so that by 2030 no child is born at risk of poor literacy.”  (I would invite you to re-read this statement and shudder in your boots as I did.)

While the past twenty-five (25) years have seen disappointing progress in U.S. literacy, there have been huge gains in linguistic performance by a totally different type of actor – computers. Dramatic advances in natural language processing (Hirschberg and Manning, 2015) have led to the rise of language technologies like search engines and machine translation that “read” text and produce answers or translations that are useful for people. While these systems currently have a much shallower understanding of language than people do, they can already perform tasks similar to the simple text search task above – exceeding the abilities of millions of people who are nonliterate.

According to the National National Centre for Education Statistics machine literacy has already exceeded the literacy abilities of the estimated three percent (3%) of non-literate adults in the US.

Comparing demographic data from the Global Developer Population and Demographic Study 2016 v2 and the 2015 Digest of Education Statistics finds there are more software engineers in the U.S. than school teachers, “We are focusing so much on teaching algorithms and AI to be better at language that we are forgetting that fifty percent (50%)  of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth grade level,” Project Literacy said in a statement.  I retired from General Electric Appliances.   Each engineer was required to write, or at least the first draft, of the Use and Care Manuals for specific cooking products.  We were instructed to 1.) Use plenty of graphic examples and 2.) Write for a fifth-grade audience.  Even with that, we know from experience that many consumers never use and have no intention of reading their Use and Care Manual.  With this being the case, many of the truly cool features are never used.  They may as well buy the most basic product.

Research done by Business Insider reveals that thirty-two (32) million Americans cannot currently read a road sign. Yet at the same time there are ten (10) million self-driving cars predicted to be on the roads by 2020. (One could argue this will further eliminate the need for literacy, but that is debatable.)  If we look at literacy rates for the top ten (10) countries on our planet we see the following:

Citing research from Venture Scanner , Project Literacy found that in 2015 investment in AI technologies, including natural language processing, speech recognition, and image recognition, reached $47.2 billion. Meanwhile, data on US government spending shows that the 2017 U.S. Federal Education Budget for schools (pre-primary through secondary school) is $40.4 billion.  I’m not too sure funding for education always goes to benefit students education. In other words, throwing more money at this problem may not always provide desired results, but there is no doubt, funding for AI will only increase.

“Human literacy levels have stalled since 2000. At any time, this would be a cause for concern, when one in ten people worldwide…still cannot read a road sign, a voting form, or a medicine label,” James wrote in the report. “In popular discussion about advances in artificial intelligence, it is easy

CONCLUSION:  AI will only continue to advance and there will come a time when robotic systems will be programmed with basic decision-making skills.  To me, this is not only fascinating but more than a little scary.

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