Data Dolls — We “Ai”n’t Seen Nothing Yet

“By far, the greatest danger of Artificial Intelligence is that people conclude too early that they understand it.”- Eliezer Yudkowsky

Animism (from Latin anima, “breath, spirit, life”) is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Animism perceives animals, plants and manmade crafts as animated and alive. The ancient Shinto religion includes a belief in animism. Shinto is practiced by 80% of Japanese people.

I share this fact because the belief in animism becomes interesting in a world of robots, especially when robots are equipped with artificial intelligence. I discuss this in this week’s innovation show with Alec Ross, author of “The Industries of the Future”.

Alec tells us of elder care robots and Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR) called Robina. HSRs are robots that offer broad-based assistance in nursing, independence and daily life. Toyota is working to give these robots capabilities ranging from basic support such as picking up and carrying objects, to potential uses in applications such as preventative care and health management. HSRs continue to undergo trials at elderly-care facilities and in the homes of people with disabilities. Why is this relevant?

Toyota has recognised an opportunity at the intersection of two Japanese trends. With its low birth rate, the population of Japan has been shrinking since 2010. This trend intersects with the increasing life span of the Japanese population, Japanese people are one of the longest-lived in the world. 38% of the population will be people aged 65 and older by 2065. This means that there are not enough people to care for the elderly. This means an opportunity for robots. With the Shinto religion accepted that a robot has a soul or life force, the robot becomes more acceptable by Japanese society.

At the other end of the human life spectrum, children are also being introduced to artificial intelligence in a similar way.

Hello Barbie

When I was a kid my baby sister had a “talking doll”. She would pull a string on the doll which would trigger the voice to say “Mama”. Like her, I had some favourite teddy bears. The beauty of being a child is that you believed a doll or teddy bear is alive, you believe it (he or she) can hear you and maybe even talk to you.

But what if it could?

Mattel’s Hello Barbie responds realistically to a child by using natural language processing, machine learning and advanced analytics to understand what a child says and respond accordingly. Hello Barbie contains a microphone concealed in her necklace that records what anyone says to her and transmits it to data servers. The recording is then analysed and the correct response selected from the Mattel Toytalk server and sent back for Barbie to deliver to the child. Hello Barbie does this all in under a minute. (We will discuss this further on a future episode of the innovation show with Bernard Marr).

Barbie responding to your child is one thing, but what if Barbie is recording what your child says? Well, she does. Barbie remembers what children say to learn about the child for use in later conversations. Barbie will remember a child’s favourite colour, their favourite toy or their favourite musician.

Hello Barbie is a great showcase of the cutting edge in technological development, but as is always the case with technology it is a double-edged sword. With every advancement, there comes a compromise.

Whenever there is a new abundance, such as information and data, there are new scarcities. One of the scarcities of the information age is attention, the other is a scarcity of trust. With the growth of the Internet of Everything, the artificial intelligence of everything and tracking of everything there comes a backlash against tracking. Alec Ross tells us some private companies collect, mine and sell as many as 75,000 individual data points on each consumer. He also tells us perhaps we should be having the “big data talk” with our children well before we need to have the “birds and the bees” talk.

Bill Parcells was the coach of the New England Patriots. Parcells famously said, “You are what your record says you are.” If a young child says a bunch of stuff online there is easily a record kept of what they said. If this content is resurfaced at a later date, perhaps in a job interview or by a disgruntled acquaintance, an innocent childish (literally) remark could be used out of context and our data footprint might be used against us.

Gamekeeper Turned Hunter

If Barbie is recording the preferences of children and storing these preferences this data becomes interesting for those companies who collect, mine and sell data. Equally collecting data on the elderly becomes profitable as marketers are awakening to the profitability of targeting the “Grey Euro”. However, here is an even bigger conundrum. As artificial intelligence improves at an exponential rate and learns as it improves it will eventually learn both the preferences and weaknesses of people. Collecting our web surfing data is one thing, but targeting us based on our mental biases and frailties is a very different scenario.

What if AI-powered toys like Hello Barbie or AI-powered robots like Robina were hacked? If a Human Support Robot caring for the elderly was hacked, the robot could not only let the hacker know when the person is asleep or out of home, but could equally fetch any valuables for the hacker.

Let’s take the recent Momo suicide challenge (which was a hoax) that caused global panic. The challenge “became a worldwide phenomenon” in 2018 after an Indonesian newspaper reported that it had caused a 12-year-old girl to kill herself. Awareness grew in February 2019 after the Police Service of Northern Ireland posted a public warning on Facebook, and Kim Kardashian pleaded that YouTube remove alleged “Momo” videos.

While there was no Momo, it served as a global warning shot to parents all over the world to pay attention to the content we feed our children. Holding that thought for a moment a toy that not only talks to our children but records their preferences and learns from the child becomes both a great innovation and potential threat.

My point in this post is not to demonise technological growth. My desire is to shine a light on some questions we need to ask, some issues we need to address. Alec Ross does a great job of this, which is a great listen on episode 156 of The Innovation Show. However, we need regulation on Ai before it grows so powerful that it progresses to a point that we cannot control it. Great minds such as Innovation Show listener and advocate Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the late and great Stephen Hawkings all warned against AI. Every AI expert I have spoken to warns that we must be ultra vigilant when it comes to the regulations of such powerful technologies. Like any exponential change, it feels like it won’t happen in the near future, but then it does. It is for this reason that we need to act now.

“I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish. I mean with artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon.” — Elon Musk

On this week’s Innovation show we welcome technology policy expert, Startup advisor. Obama Administration adviser, senior adviser innovation to Secretary Clinton. Former Baltimore schoolTeacher, and New York Times Bestselling Author of “The Industries of the Future” Alec Ross.

As Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation, Alec Ross travelled 1 million miles to 41 countries, the equivalent of 2 round-trips to the moon. From refugee camps in the Congo and Syrian war zones to visiting the world’s most powerful people in business and government, his travels amounted to a 4-year masterclass in the changing nature of innovation.

We talk:

  • How change feels so far
  • Robotics
  • The five superpowers of robotics
  • Robotic carers in Japan
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Regulating algorithms
  • The societal impact of autonomous vehicles
  • The need for a new social contract
  • The industry of genetic code
  • The genetic repair of cancer
  • Designer babies
  • Digital Currencies
  • Blockchain
  • Bitcoin
  • Interdisciplinary learners
  • Expertise in technologies and humanities
  • Education for tomorrow
  • Election Tampering
  • Cybercrime
  • Creating Technology Hubs
  • Diversity and Innovation
  • Open versus closed systems

Have a Listen:

More about Alec here:

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