Rob High is the chief technology officer of IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform. He’s also based out of IBM’s Austin offices.
We talked to him last week about the changes artificial intelligence might bring to our lives.
512tech: What sort of cognitive computing innovations are you most excited about, or see the most potential in?
High: There are two areas I’m really focused on right now. One is what I’ll refer to as deep reasoning, which is how does the cognitive system understand enough about someone’s motivation, and what they are attempting to solve, in order to do a better job of finding the right information, the right insights, to generate the right inspirations for how people come to a conclusion or decision.
That’s deep reasoning.
That, I will assert, we are at the very beginning of. In the case of Jeopardy, that’s what we call inductive reasoning. But getting into more deductive reasoning, other forms of inductive reasoning, and then eventually into abductive reasoning, is where that heads.
The other thing we’ve been very deeply engaged in is: How do we create presence? Not the cerebral aspects of cognition, which is where I might place things like deep reasoning, but what are the behavioral aspects of cognition?
This goes from a very basic idea that I think all of us can intuit. Which is, you take the smartest person in the world and lock them up a room solving the hardest intellectual problem they could ever face. If they solve that problem in their mind, in that room, but cannot come out of the room and articulate their reasoning and their conclusions, it doesn’t matter. They won’t be perceived as anything smarter than a doorknob.
So how we articulate, how we express ourselves, how we convey our knowledge and understanding so that other people can understand it, and make use of it, is as important to the cognitive problem as the cerebral aspects of intellectually resolving the answer.
I just read this article that was about Elon Musk being totally freaked out about AI. He’s concerned AI will take over for humans and kill us all. It’s very dark. You’re steeped in AI and I wanted to get your perspective on this.
I do think as engineers -- I don’t care what the technology is, whether it’s AI or anything else -- as engineers we always have a responsibility to build technology that is useful to people.
Very explicitly, philosophically, every useful technology that has ever been produced, has been produced with the idea it is extending our reach or amplifying our strengths.
I can’t think of a single technology that doesn’t fit in that category. I don’t care whether it’s cars we drive, whether it’s shovels, whether it’s pencils, I don’t care whatever it is. It’s been about how we extend our reach or amplify our strength. And the same thing is true in the cognitive computing space as well.
It will be most useful and most economically beneficial to people when what it is doing is amplifying our own capability, our own human strength or extending our cognitive strength. When you think about it that way, what you begin to realize is that our role is not to replace humans, to remove humans, it’s actually to augment humans.
With that perspective, I’m not worried about these things taking off in a way that would be detrimental to humankind, because, frankly, that will be weeded out if anything does begin to evolve that way. On the other hand, I do also need to say we are so early in this journey. It’s very easy to overestimate how far this has progressed versus how much further we have to go.
How farther away do you think we are from that “Jetsons” lifestyle, where we are interacting with robots all the time and have self-driving cars?
We’re still very much in our infancy.
Now, that’s not to say that this stuff isn’t going to have a tremendous impact. Even with a small percentage of advancement that we’ve made. But relative to where we can go, it’s relatively nascent.
Even with small advantages, we can have a tremendous benefit to humans.
Think about the changes that we’ve had over the last 10 years with just these. (He holds up a smartphone.) And they are not particularly intelligent. Think about where we were 10 years before these things were as manifested in our life as they are now.
Certainly my kids texting at the dinner table is not my most favorite result of these things. On the other hand, it’s estimated that people who carry a smartphone are automatically 40 percent more knowledgeable in any conversation than we would be without it. Why? Because every time anybody says anything you don’t understand, or don’t know about, or were wondering, pull out your phone and now suddenly you know something you didn’t know before. Ten years ago, we didn’t have that. We’d have to wonder or speculate or wonder or wait to come back to the conversation later.
There are concerns that low-skilled service industry jobs will disappear because they will be replaced by robots or kiosks or whatever. Do you see that happening in the near future?
I think the number of opportunities that will be created will far outweigh the number of people who will be disrupted or the jobs that will be displaced. Yeah, there will be some displacements. I think there always are with every technology.
I don't think it’s really about that. I think it’s about how we do work today, whether that it’s a low-skilled job or high-skilled job, it doesn’t matter. For everybody who has a job today, the additional benefit they will get by having a tool that allows them to do that job better, faster, for more people, more efficiently.
Think about the opposite side of this.
For example, today when you buy a product and get it home and you set it up, and you have a problem, and you have to call somebody to get this problem solved. What are your choices today?
You go to the web and find this documentation to try to figure out how to solve this problem. You might go to a social site and ask some friends or people on a blog or chat room to try to fix it. You can call some 1-800 number and put on hold, get bounced around between different people.
So now, if I can get to a system that is able to answer my question, and understands my problem enough to get to right information, at the right time, without having to search for it, and is able to answer consistently, the benefit that it has for the people on the other side of the phone call is enormous.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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