An AI Christmas Carol

A Christmas classic, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that hasn’t at least heard of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Originally published in 1843, this Christmas-time ghost story has seen many an adaptation.

For those that do need a refresher, in the story, a cantankerous old man learns the error of his selfish ways after a visit from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

And now, here’s another use of the classic story. Here, the ghosts that once visited Ebenezer Scrooge take up a much more tech-savvy role. They’re set to take us on a journey through AI past, present and future.

So, are you sitting comfortably? This is an AI Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of AI Past

This AI Christmas Carol starts in the second half of the 20th century.

Artificial intelligence as a field was officially created in 1956. There had, before this, been a few robots built, and a few papers written on the idea of intelligent machines. But it’s here that The Ghost of AI Past starts the story.

From the recognition of AI as an official field, the technology quickly grew. Over the 50s, 60s and early 70s, the promise of AI technology grew. AI was going to beat the best chess players. It was going to translate messages into any language. And, as ever, the technology would mark the end of jobs.

Indeed, even at the beginning, the fear of robots taking over was a mainstream concern.

The lesson of AI past

But this isn’t all The Ghost of AI Past has to show us. Instead of job-threatening robots, AI suffered failed studies and missed expectations.

In short, the technology failed to live up to the promises. And so, people became disillusioned with it. As a result, the late 70s and 80s became a season of reduced funding and interest in artificial intelligence. This is known today as the AI Winter.

It’s also possible that these overinflated promises of AI contributed to a phenomenon known as the AI effect. This is where advancements and technology once considered AI get renamed. They’re no longer considered ‘true AI.’

The Ghost of AI Present

Today’s AI looks a bit more advanced than that of the field in AI past. In fact, in this AI Christmas Carol, the Ghost of AI Present has a vast array of exciting tools to show off.

Present-day artificial intelligence has enjoyed a growing presence in the spotlight. It’s contributed to fields such as machine learning, computer vision, and speech recognition. Driverless cars are in the works, and facial recognition is leaking into our cameras.

In other words, machines are starting to mimic human abilities like learning and conversation. It seems that this time, AI is more than hot air and overblown promises. And, naturally, the ongoing fear that AI and robots will take over jobs once again prevails in mainstream consciousness.

But the Ghost of AI Present has more to show.

The challenges for AI present

Alongside the innovation and advancement lies a series of hurdles and failures.

For a start, there’s AI snake oil. That is, fake artificial intelligence. In some cases, a company thinks they have AI when they don’t. More concerning is the Wizard of Oz AI. This is where a human hides ‘behind the curtain’, pretending to be a machine. The question is, left unchecked, could this create unfulfilled promises that lead to another AI Winter?

Today’s AI also faces ethical issues. As artificial intelligence has started to infiltrate everyday life, its failures have a heavier impact. And often, thanks to something called the AI black box, it’s difficult to fix.

For example, AI tools are prone to picking up biases in data and then producing discriminatory results. There are also questions of security, privacy, and accountability for errors and damage. Without these questions answered, it’s hard to accept present-day AI.

The Ghost of AI Yet to Come

While the AI tools of today are good at their prescribed job, their skills and knowledge aren’t transferrable. The Ghost of AI Yet to Come could show us a future where this is not the case. But, any distant-future predictions for artificial intelligence come from a large helping of speculation.

In theory, the future of AI could mean the creation of artificial superintelligence. This means machines will come to far surpass humans in both intelligence and ability. This could, hypothetically, bring the singularity, and see all the science fiction tropes come to life.

But before we can even think of superintelligence or robot overlords, we need to get to artificial general intelligence. This is where machines can generalise and apply their abilities to any task. (Just as a human can.)

AI yet to come: a warning, or a promise?

So, what does The Ghost of AI Yet to Come have to show us in this AI Christmas Carol? As far as a foreseeable AI future goes, there are two main possibilities.

First, there’s the potential future that sees AI ethics and snake oil unaddressed. In such a case, we could see another AI Winter. Investors will become disillusioned by fake AI, and consumers will struggle to accept the technology. Eventually, the tools of AI present will suffer the AI effect, and become known as separate technologies.

Second, (and much brighter for AI,) is a future where AI researchers and legislators solve the problems inflicting AI today. The technology continues to grow, and we eventually achieve artificial general intelligence. With this, AI will help us improve our understanding of the world. It will help us find new cures and medicines. It will help us help more people, and fight discrimination.

An AI Christmas Carol

Artificial intelligence is, irrevocably, part of our world. It’s grown since the early years of robotics to the pivotal point we see today.

The question is, where will we take it next? Will we learn from the Ghosts of AI past, present and future in this AI Christmas Carol? We think the outlook is good.

The future is ours to make.

Useful links

A history of automation: The rise of robots and AI

What is the AI effect, and is it set to happen again?

Will the singularity happen? Four arguments against it.