Amplifying Human Reach

PC Mag recently interviewed Rob High, IBM Watson's Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Thanks to High's experience with Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence (AI) supercomputer, he is one of the preeminent thinkers in the AI space. In his interview, High spoke about how technology, and AI in particular, is transforming jobs, culture, and life for humanity.

For High, one of the biggest misconceptions the public holds about AI is the sort of dystopian worldview we see in Hollywood and, in some cases, from other thinkers in the field.

He points out that AI is not replacing the human mind, but augmenting human intelligence and amplifying its reach: “[I]f you look at almost every other tool that has ever been created, our tools tend to be most valuable when they're amplifying us, when they're extending our reach, when they're increasing our strength, when they're allowing us to do things that we can't do by ourselves as human beings.”

Watson is designed to leverage machine learning and massive data analysis at scale in service to humans and our enterprises. The system is available as a set of open APIs and SaaS products for use by just about anyone. Whereas Watson can and probably will take over some jobs that include many repetitive tasks, such as reviewing medical images, it will be doing so for the benefit of humanity.

In the medical field, Watson's system helps doctors sift through huge quantities of data in order to make a diagnosis. High explained that this system democratizes expertise, capturing and distributing it all over the world so that doctors and patients everywhere benefit from the latest and best medical expertise available. And in cases where the AI does take over the tasks that include reviewing thousands of similar images for diagnostic purposes, it will be doing so in service to helping medical professionals do their jobs more effectively.

Just as advances in cars and later airplanes put some passenger railway workers out of work in service to more efficient transportation, AI may take away tasks from humans that we really don't need to be doing anymore. We can learn new tasks, and continue to teach our AIs.

Image Credit: IBM

Along these lines, High commented: “It does have some of the same dynamic that every tool that we've ever created in society. I like to say if you go back and look at the last 10,000 years of modern society since the advent of the agricultural revolution, we've been as a human society building tools, hammers, shovels, hydraulics, pulleys, levers, and a lot of these tools have been most durable when what they're really doing is amplifying human beings, amplifying our strength, amplifying our thinking, amplifying our reach.”

Dueling Experts

Pay attention to the headlines about AI lately, and it would be easy to feel like smart computers might slowly be taking over the world. After all, artificial intelligence is already replacing guide dogs and restoring vision for the blind, investigating quantum physics, identifying suicidal behavior online, and preparing to drive our cars. It's rivaling our abilities in everything from playing poker to creating art, and scientists are working to make it behave more and more human. Yet experts and thinkers alike still disagree over whether this growth represents any real like danger to humanity.

Lately, the difference in opinions on AI between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have made the press, in large part because the two are both so influential in tech circles and among the public more generally. Like Stephen Hawking before him, Musk has warned that AI may be the greatest threat humankind has ever faced, and has therefore devoted time and resources to making it safer for humans.

Zuckerberg has recently stated that he finds these views alarmist and irresponsible, and that he is optimistic about AI. For Zuckerberg, AI is a tool that can empower humans to do more than ever before. Other AI researchers have also characterized Musk's views as over-dramatic.

High, apparently, would agree: “That's really the way to think about this stuff, is that it will have its greatest utility when it is allowing us to do what we do better than we could by ourselves, when the combination of the human and the tool together are greater than either one of them would've been by themselves. That's really the way we think about it. That's how we're evolving the technology. That's where the economic utility is going to be.”

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