Four years ago the movie Her was released—Spike Jonze’s solo screenwriting debut. A depressed introvert, Theodore Twombly purchases an A.I. operating system voiced by the sultry Scarlett Johansson and subsequently falls in love. SPOILER ALERT…Samantha (Johansson) evolves beyond her need and desire for human companionship and leaves Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Ultimately, Twombly is transformed by the relationship with Samantha and becomes a more affable, accepting and apologetic individual.
If you watched this film in the theatre, you most likely came out of the screening feeling consumed by the thought that this version of A.I. isn’t too far off from reality. In 2006, a group of Stanford University elites started the Singularity Summit—a conference of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI). Why, you ask? Well, to talk about the singularity, of course. What is the singularity? It’s what inspired Jonze to write this film in the first place. MIRI is a non-profit whose entire mission is to “research safety issues related to the development of Strong A.I.” and study the long-term outcomes of artificial intelligence that can perform the full range of human cognitive abilities (just like Samantha). Are you scared yet? Yes, you are—computers are taking over the world and soon they’ll be swooping up your bae for romantic weekend excursions to the coast.
Technological singularity—the idea that an operating system, like Samantha, could upgrade itself and enter a “runaway reaction” resulting in a series of rapid “self-improvement cycles” eventually surpassing all human intelligence was first introduced in the 1950s by John von Neumann. Neumann is maybe best known for his work on the Manhattan Project during WWII, but this man wrote over 150 papers during his life on pure mathematics, physics and applied mathematics. His last work, which he wrote on his deathbed, is called “The Computer and the Brain.”
Okay, okay, so a group of nerds get together every year to talk technological singularity and compliment one another’s tortoise shell glasses. There is no need to be concerned, right? Well, that’s all in the eye of the beholder—devices already exist with the ability to read your facial expressions and determine your mood.
Should we be concerned about the advancement of A.I. technology? Yes and no. Don’t rush to your kitchen and make yourself a tin foil cap quite yet. There are two sides to every story. Affectiva, a company out of Waltham, Massachusettes, spearheaded by Rana el Kaliouby—an Egyptian woman who received a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Cambridge—has produced a software program called Affdex. In an article published in The New Yorker, Rana explains that the applications of Affectiva are vast. Affectiva’s software, which came out of the M.I.T. Media Lab and uses machine learning to interpret data, is used to test television shows on primetime networks; can predict voting preferences by those watching presidential debates; and can even be used in business negotiations by reading the faces of those in heated, business-driven Skype chats.
The question remains, what are the potential implications of this software, and software like Affdex? There is very real concern by many scientists that an OS, similar to Samantha in Her, could upgrade itself—eventually surpassing all human intelligence. This is why MIRI meets annually—to discuss the reality of these implications. Technology, on most fronts, has the ability to be used for good or evil—Affdex isn’t any different.
Rana’s inspiration behind building machine learning software was for assistive technology purposes—like aiding an autistic child in uncomfortable social situations where eye contact is difficult, for example. Or, when put to use in a vehicle, the technology can determine when a driver is too drowsy to be on the road and send out a warning signal.
Quite simply, technology is man-made, and whether it’s used for good or evil is determined by the operator. When I dove into the research for this article, I expected to be disillusioned. It turns out that much of the energy and research that goes into creating assistive technology is spearheaded by individuals whose aim is to make this world a better, more inclusive space.