I have sometimes been a bit ahead of my time, but perhaps never more so than my career in artificial intelligence. I was working in a “AI Alley” (Kendall Square, Cambridge Massachusetts) building expert systems 3 decades ago. The industry went through a boom but then a bust and largely retreated from being a darling of venture capitalists to being an esoteric branch of computer science academics.  Until recently.

I’ve always been intrigued by visionaries who were years, if not decades or even centuries ahead of their time – Leonardo da Vinci, Antoni Gaudi, Frank Lloyd Wright.  One of those individuals is Alan Turing whose birthday is today. A persecuted homosexual, you could say he was ahead of his time both in identity as well as intellect. Celebrated in the film the “Imitation Game” about the development of the war-changing “Enigma Machine”, he is largely considered the “father of intelligent systems”. His “Turing Test” remains the essential benchmark for artificial “intelligence”.

Like many innovations, people over-estimated the short-term possibilities of artificial intelligence and under estimated the long-term ones. While over blown claims of inflated business plans disappointed in the eighties, simple algorithms (the heart of AI) would nonetheless slowly come to automate so many aspects of daily living from the mundane to the complex. Now, instead of people dismissing AI, people are fearing it taking over the world.

Fortunately, experts like Stuart Russell have an answer for this dystopian possibility – embracing failure. While the entire ethos of computer engineering seems to be about making systems smarter and smarter, his TED lecture argues that the most powerful attribute might be ignorance. Programming ignorance into these advanced, intelligence systems to save the human race…

  • The second law is a law of humility, if you like. And this turns out to be really important to make robots safe. It says that the robot does not know what those human values are, so it has to maximize them, but it doesn’t know what they are. And that avoids this problem of single-minded pursuit of an objective. This uncertainty turns out to be crucial.”

It is particularly appropriate that he dubs this principle the “law of humility” as “humility” is the virtue of embracing failure.


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