The Future Of AI: Is Something Different This Time?

Is something different about the new AI?

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We grew up with the fantasy and the nightmare.

The crew of the Enterprise talks directly to their ship’s intelligent computer. Hal 2000 of 2001 A Space Odyssey runs a deep space exploration vessel while simultaneously trying to kill its astronaut crew. The machines in The Matrix enslave humans. The robots in Star Wars are our friends.

Clearly, the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been with us in pop culture for a while. But enthusiasm among scientists for AI’s reality has actually waxed and waned strongly a number of times over the last half century.

Right now, researchers are riding high on another wave of enthusiasm. Advances across a number of fields have experts hoping that something like AI may be getting close. So is something really different this time? If so what does that mean for the rest of us?

Should we, in other words, be worried or excited?

I recently read an excellent article called the “Future of AI” by Vasant Dhar. Based on a conference at NYU by the same name held last January, Dhar does a wonderful job explaining what’s changed.

The biggest shift in AI research has come through two developments. The first is the new capacity for machines to learn for themselves. In previous generations of AI studies, scientists had to spoon feed computers the distinctions and reasoning they felt were central to the operation of intelligence. Over the last decade or two, researchers have pushed successfully at the frontiers of “Machine Learning.”

One of their breakthroughs involves the use of a technique called deep learning. Though it takes many forms, one example of deep learning is the creation of electronic “neural networks” that can mimic different basic operations occurring in real webs of neurons. The “deep” part comes from stacking up the operations of the electronic neural networks. That means lower level networks deal with very simple operations (like finding edges in an image) and then hand their results up to others networks higher in the stack. In the end, hopefully, these integrated networks allow a computer to execute a truly higher operation like facial recognition.

And, Dhar says, it works. Machine learning really happens on its own:

“Newer systems can take the visual, auditory, or language input directly. This advancement enables the machine to take direct inputs from the world without human involvement and create its own internal representation for further processing.”

The other development driving this wave of excitement is the ubiquity of Big Data. As Dhar puts it:

“… we have witnessed a mushrooming of machine learning systems in virtually every domain where large data sets have become available. It is becoming more common for computers to perform tasks better than the best humans can.”

From self-driving cars to robot assistants that anticipate your needs before you have them, it seems clear that we are already creating a fundamentally different kind of world where some form of artificial intelligence is baked in. In a sense, these systems are becoming “effectively intelligent” via their independence.

Such effectively intelligence is an important point because we need not have machines that have “woken-up” to run headlong into fundamental questions about ethics and existential dangers. That’s why one of Dhar’s section headings is “How Do We Control What We Don’t Fully Understand?” He writes:

“Machines are now … equipped with the appropriate epistemic criteria (such as predictive accuracy or model identification), [that] they can design themselves to solve problems and discover new knowledge. Once such machines are integrated into the fabric of our lives, we may not be able to “turn them off” if they start behaving in a way we don’t understand!”

Again it’s critical to emphasize that we don’t need machines to go all Matrix or SkyNet on us (meaning a fully self-aware, fully evil AI). Machines just have to become intelligent enough, in the way that scientists are already developing, for society to run into difficulties.

To see how quickly the rising tide of “effective AI” may smash into daily life, consider the legal ramifications of machines behaving in ways we don’t understand. How do we create regulations (i.e. robot law) when the possibility of robot decisions we don’t understand must be included. As Dhar asks, “Who is responsible for the actions of a robot that designs itself and learns to get better over time?” Better yet, who is responsible if a network of robots, acting in a way consistent with their design, carries out actions that turn dangerous — or even deadly?

The point is that something really does seem to be different this time — and it’s cause for both excitement and worry. Our machines don’t need to become conscious to rewire our world. They just need to become intelligent enough. That day may be approaching us faster than we are preparing for it to arrive.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described “evangelist of science.” You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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Filipino Americans: Blending Cultures, Redefining Race

The Latinos of Asia

There are over 3 million people of Filipino heritage living in the U.S., and many say they relate better to Latino Americans than other Asian American groups. In part, that can be traced to the history of the Philippines, which was ruled by Spain for more than 300 years. That colonial relationship created a cultural bond that persists to this day.

It’s the topic of the book, “The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race.” Author Anthony Ocampo spoke about the book with Morning Edition’s Renee Montagne.

Interview Highlights

The religious bond between Filipinos and Latinos

When you go back to the Philippines, and you look at the buildings, the omnipresence of religion, Catholicism is everywhere, The Virgin Mary is everywhere. Like something you’d see in Latin America.

And when Filipinos migrate to the United States, they’ll look at things like family, they’ll look at things like Catholicism, they’ll look at things like their last names, and think, “Hey when it comes to our history it seems like we have a lot of similarities with this group, more so than the group that we are boxed into.'”

Growing up Filipino in a Latino neighborhood

So I grew up in Eagle Rock, which is in northeast Los Angeles. And pretty much from elementary school all the way to the 8th grade, all of my classmates were either Filipino or Latino. And growing up, there were certain norms that I saw that were common to both of us.

We went through a lot of the religious rite of passages like First Communion, First Confession, Confirmation. It was pretty easy to observe that we have a lot of overlapping words between ourselves and Latinos. Everyday words like mesa, tenedor, cuchara. That’s table, fork and spoon.

Why it’s hard to find a “Little Manila” in the U.S.

So as a lot of people know the Philippines was, after it was colonized by Spain, it was colonized by the United States for another half century, and arguably the Americans have had a presence there ever since. And with the American colonial period, they brought a massive public education system. They made English the national language of instruction, along with Filipino. And what that means is that Filipinos, even before migrating, are socialized to American norms…So by the time they get here, the usual things that push people into ethnic enclaves like not knowing the language, not having the social networks, don’t apply because of that strong American influence.

Why Filipinos have a “low profile” as a nationality in the U.S.

I think Filipinos don’t have a higher profile because when it comes to the way we think about race, Filipinos are really hard to place. We don’t really have a distinct look. We can look Chinese, we can look Mexican.

I think also because generally the Filipinos that come to the United States are more of a middle class, highly educated selection, there hasn’t been as much of an urgent need for them to galvanize – build ethnic economies. I think about other Asian Americans for example. So, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, when they come to this country, you know the Vietnamese nail salon is an easy example. A lot of East Asians have developed these Saturday language schools which have been really important for their kids to maintain to the culture of the homeland.

And when you do all these things that are really concentrated, it makes people really visible. And Filipinos, because they don’t have as much of a need to congregate in the same way, I think it makes them less visible.

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Obama Lauds Vietnam; Nudges It To Improve Its Human Rights Record

President Barack Obama delivers a speech to the Vietnamese people at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on Tuesday.

President Barack Obama delivers a speech to the Vietnamese people at the National Convention Center in Hanoi on Tuesday. Kham/AP hide caption

toggle caption Kham/AP

In the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Tuesday, President Obama celebrated the dynamism of the fast-growing country.

He also met with dissidents and encouraged the government to improve its human rights record.

Like a growing number of American tourists, Obama seems to be enjoying himself in Vietnam.

The president snacked on noodles in Hanoi’s Old Quarter Monday night but admits he didn’t hazard a dash across the busy streets, buzzing with motorbikes.

Obama’s not the first American president to visit Vietnam, but he is the first to have come of age after the war ended.

He thanked an older generation of leaders — including Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who is a former POW, and Secretary of State John Kerry, who also served — for paving the way to more normal diplomatic relations.

“Because our veterans showed us the way, because warriors had the courage to pursue peace, our people are closer than ever before,” Obama said.

The president hopes to strengthen those ties with a new trans-Pacific trade deal, though it’s controversial in the U.S.

The deal is designed to boost the U.S. profile in Asia and provide a counterweight to China’s growing military and economic might.

“You’ll be able to buy more of our goods, made in America,” Obama told the audience. “There are strategic benefits: Vietnam will be less dependent on any one partner, and enjoy broader ties with more partners, including the United States.”

The trade deal requires Vietnam to adopt labor and environmental reforms. Obama also pressed for political reforms such as freedom of assembly.

He notes that while he was able to meet with some human rights activists on Tuesday, others were barred from attending.

“It is my view that upholding these rights is not a threat to stability but enhances stability and is the foundation of progress,” Obama said.

He acknowledged that reform won’t happen overnight, but pledged the U.S. will continue to be a partner to Vietnam.

Obama suggested that’s a hopeful example to other parts of the world, that even the most intractable conflicts can give way to a brighter, more cooperative future.

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When Great Minds Think Unlike: Inside Science's 'Replication Crisis'

Hidden Brain takes a look at the 'Replication Crisis' in scientific experimentation.

Daniel Fishel for NPR

It started with a report published last year titled “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science.” It’s a rather unassuming title given the amount of hand wringing, head scratching, and eye rolling it’s incited in what’s come to be known as psychology’s “replication crisis.”

The report was authored by psychologist Brain Nosek and hundreds of other researchers. Together, they set about trying to replicate one hundred psychology experiments published in three of the discipline’s tippy-top journals. Their question: How many studies would hold up whwen someone else ran the same experiment?

After following the steps of the original scientists—recruiting subjects, administering tests, running statistical analyses—they came up with an unsettling figure: just 39 of the 100 experiments they ran produced the same results as in the originals. In other words, nearly two-thirds of psychology studies—on topics ranging from fear to teaching math—failed to replicate.

The so-called “crisis” seemed to be rejected as soon as it was declared with a swell of articles coming to psychology’s defense with headlines like “Failure Is Moving Science Forwards,” “The Crisis In Social Psychology That Isn’t,” and, most bluntly, “Psychology Is Not In Crisis.”

What’s going on? This week, Hidden Brain looks at the “replication crisis” through zooming in on one seminal paper that was the focuse of two replication efforts: one succeeded in replicating the original finding, the other failed.

The original study, authored by Margaret Shih, Todd Pittinsky, and Nalini Ambady in 1999, found that Asian women performed worse on a math test when primed to think about their female identity, but better when they were primed to think about their Asian identity.

Nearly two decades later, Nosek and the Reproducibility Project noticed that this study, which by then had been widely disseminated in textbooks and psychology education, had never itself been replicated. So he assigned two teams to run it again—one in Georgia and the other in California. They came back with different results. And this gets at one of the biggest questions explored in this episode: when scientific studies come to different conclusions, what should we think of as true?

Shankar talks to psychologists Dan Gilbert and “mathematical social scientist” Eric Bradlow about what we can learn from the replication crisis and how to think about scientific truths.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Special thanks this week to Daniel Shuhkin. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk, @maggiepenman and @maxnesterak, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

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World's First Surviving Septuplets, Born In '97, Graduate From High School

President Bush points out reporters and photographers to some of the McCaughey septuplets as they greet him at the Des Moines International Airport in Iowa in 2002.

President Bush points out reporters and photographers to some of the McCaughey septuplets as they greet him at the Des Moines International Airport in Iowa in 2002. Ken Lambert/AP hide caption

toggle caption Ken Lambert/AP

Born into the world and into the spotlight in 1997, the McCaughey septuplets have now graduated high school.

Reportedly the first surviving septuplets in the world, their birth fueled a national debate about fertility treatment — and inspired awe.

Alexis, Brandon, Joel, Kelsey, Kenny, Natalie and Nathan graduated Carlisle High School in Iowa on Sunday, the Des Moines Register reports.

Bobbi McCaughey took a fertility drug after she and her husband had difficulty conceiving their first child, The New York Times reported in 1997.

“The pregnancy has captured worldwide attention as both a symbol of the ultimate scientific miracle and a cautionary example of the unwanted consequences of fertility treatments,” the Times said.

The McCaugheys had been told that aborting some of the fetuses would increase the odds of survival for the others, but as the Times reported, “They said their religious beliefs would not allow any abortion.”

Since then, the use of fertility treatment has become much more common — and the instances of high-risk multiple births have gone down, NPR has reported. In 2012, more than 61,000 babies were conceived with the help of in-vitro fertilization clinics. That’s up from fewer than 30,000 such babies born in 1998, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the McCaughey babies raised ethical concerns for some, they also attracted sizable support — including a lifetime supply of Pampers from Proctor and Gamble, as CNN reported at the time.

After graduation, KCCI-TV says, the siblings “will go their separate paths, including military, the work force and college.” All seven siblings have been offered free admission to Hannibal-LaGrange University in Missouri; the local TV station says two of them plan to attend.

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TSA's Head Of Security 'Removed' From Office, Says House Panel

TSA agents work at a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International airport in New Jersey on Monday. The House committee says the head of security for TSA has been removed from office after inquiries into the agency's management.

TSA agents work at a security checkpoint at Newark Liberty International airport in New Jersey on Monday. The House committee says the head of security for TSA has been removed from office after inquiries into the agency’s management. Mel Evans/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mel Evans/AP

The head of security for TSA, Kelly Hoggan, has been removed from his position after a hearing about the agency’s management, the House Oversight Committee says.

A spokesman for TSA declined to comment when contacted by NPR.

The change comes as fliers complain about long, slow airport screening lines. That problem “has many parts,” as NPR’s Brian Naylor has reported: More people are traveling, and there are fewer screeners.

The May 12 hearing looked into attrition as well as management accountability. The committee says Hoggan received more than $90,000 in bonuses between November 2013 and November 2014, “despite significant security vulnerabilities.” Lawmakers accused TSA of surreptitiously giving the payments in $10,000 increments, NBC News reports.

NBC adds that during the hearing, TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said that he did not think the “level of bonus is justified,” but that he didn’t have plans to fire Hoggan.

Here’s more from the Two-Way on what TSA plans to work on going forward:

“Congress gave the TSA authority to hire more than 700 new screeners, who are expected by mid-June, and the agency is redeploying others. It will also be making additional use of canine teams to help screen passengers, as well as stepping up marketing of the TSA Pre-Check program, which allows passengers who undergo a background check and pay $85 to go through expedited screening.”

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U.S. Supreme Court Decides Three Cases Involving Race

This undated photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections, shows Timothy Tyrone Foster. The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a death sentence handed to Foster because prosecutors improperly kept African-Americans off the jury that convicted Foster of killing a white woman.

This undated photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections, shows Timothy Tyrone Foster. The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a death sentence handed to Foster because prosecutors improperly kept African-Americans off the jury that convicted Foster of killing a white woman. Uncredited/AP hide caption

toggle caption Uncredited/AP

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a Georgia man sentenced to death is entitled to a new trial because prosecutors deliberately excluded all African Americans from the jury based on their race. The 7-to-1 ruling was one of three high court decisions issued Monday involving racial discrimination.

In announcing the jury selection decision, Chief Justice John Roberts used unusually harsh words to describe the prosecutors’ conduct. He labelled their proffered non-racial justifications for excluding all the black prospective jurors “nonsense,” and “not true.”

The decision came in the case of Timothy Foster, a black man sentenced to death for murdering an elderly white woman. The trial was nearly 30 years ago and just a year after the Supreme Court had dealt for the first time with one of the key elements of the American jury system — the practice of allowing each side to eliminate a set number of prospective jurors without giving any reason.

These are called peremptory strikes, and in 1986, the court faced up to the fact that they can sometimes mask racial discrimination. The justices ruled that if minorities are disproportionately excluded from a jury panel, the prosecution has to justify its peremptory strikes with non-racial explanations.

In Foster’s case, the trial judge and every appellate court thereafter accepted those explanations but the Supreme Court said Monday they were, in effect, a charade.

The prosecution’s jury file, which the defense finally obtained in 2006, showed that the name of every black prospective juror was labelled with a B, and highlighted in green. The black jurors were rated against each other “in case it comes down to having to pick one.”

As to the reasons prosecutors gave for striking black jurors, the court said they “cannot be credited,” because white jurors with the same characteristics were accepted for the jury.

For example, the prosecution claimed that it struck Marilyn Garrett because she was divorced, and at age 34 was too young to serve in a case involving an 18-year-old defendant. But three out of four divorced white prospective jurors were allowed to serve, as were eight white jurors under the age of 36.

Similarly, the prosecution struck prospective juror Eddie Hood because his son was the same age as the defendant. But the prosecution allowed white jurors with teenage sons to serve. When called on that, the prosecution shifted its focus to Hood’s son, claiming he had been convicted of a similar crime — a claim the chief justice scoffed at, noting that Hood’s son had been convicted five years earlier of stealing four hub caps.

In the end, the court concluded that the “shifting explanations, misrepresentations of the record, and the persistent focus on race . . . in the prosecution’s file” demonstrated an unconstitutional and “concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

The decision was a relief to defense lawyers and some prosecutors, among them Larry Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, and before that as the chief federal prosecutor in Atlanta.

“What makes this case so important is that the Supreme Court clearly decided not to weaken the [current] standard,” Thompson said. “And I think it will make it more difficult for prosecutors to engage in the kind of blatant and purposeful racial discrimination as the prosecutors did in this case.”

But the court’s decision did nothing to plow new ground to prevent more subtle or covert racial discrimination in jury selection. Indeed, the chief justice noted in his opinion announcement that it is rare to have such explicit evidence of race discrimination as existed in the Foster case.

Federal Judge Mark Bennett, who has written and lectured widely about implicit bias among juries, said he had hoped the court would take more affirmative steps to prevent biased jury selection — such as requiring prosecutors to prove by “clear and convincing proof” that there were legitimate non-racial reasons for striking qualified minority jurors. The current system, “is not very helpful in the real world,” he said in a telephone interview with NPR, because “the judge has to call the prosecutor a liar” in order to force any change. Bennett, like others, also said he believes that there are inherent problems with the whole system of peremptory strikes.

Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson, an expert on jury selection, says peremptory strikes invite discrimination.

Striking a qualified juror by saying “Sorry, you’re gone,” is “an insult, and yet, it’s perfectly tolerated,” Nesson said.

Indeed, studies have shown that exclusion of black citizens from juries is still a problem.

A study of death penalty juries in Houston County, Ala., showed that 80 percent of qualified black jurors were struck; the result was that in a 27 percent black county, half the death penalty juries were all white. Another study in North Carolina found that from 1990 to 2010, prosecutors excluded black jurors twice as often a non-black jurors.

Jury reform advocates note that conversely, studies have shown that interracial juries make fewer factual errors and deliberate longer.

There was just one dissenter in Monday’s jury selection decision: Clarence Thomas, the court’s only African American justice. He said that in his view, the reasons given for the peremptory strikes were credible.

The two other decisions released by the court on Monday also had racial components, but the decisions focused on adjacent issues.

In one case, the court dealt with the charge of racial gerrymandering in Virginia. Minority voters claimed that the redistricting initially enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature had diluted their votes by packing them into one district. They won in the lower court; the state of Virginia declined to appeal, so three members of the U.S. House of Representatives appealed to the Supreme Court instead. The court, however, threw out the challenge, ruling unanimously that the House members had no legal standing to sue. In an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court said there was no evidence that the House members had suffered any injury.

The decision leaves in place the lower court ruling and a redistricting map that spreads minority voters over more congressional districts, allowing these voters greater influence in more areas.

Finally, in an employment discrimination case, the court made it easier for federal employees to file employment discrimination claims. The postmaster of Englewood, Colo., filed a lawsuit claiming that he was the victim of illegal retaliation after he complained about being denied a promotion based on his race. He claimed that he was transferred to Wyoming as punishment for his discrimination complaint. Because the new job was 300 miles away and paid less, he retired.

He claimed, in essence, that the reassignment was so severe that it left him little choice and that he had been, in legalese, “constructively discharged.” The Postal Service said he had waited too long to sue, but the Supreme Court ruled in his favor by a 7-to-1 vote, declaring that his suit was filed in a timely fashion. The court said the clock on such lawsuits does not start ticking until the employee resigns. Again, Justice Thomas was the lone dissenter.

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