She didn’t actually say it like that. She might have asked “to be or not to be?” and insisted that “that is the question”. In any case, machines are already up to asking profound existential questions.
On 11th February 2019 a very unusual event marked the latest man-versus-machine challenge: a debate on whether we should subsidize pre-schools or not. In a quite unique public gathering attended by hundreds of people, IBM’s female-voiced AI system, formally known as Project Debater but lovingly nicknamed Miss Debater, opposed Harish Natarajan, a debating champion of international renown.
The human won, this time. What stole the show though was the sophistication of the debate and the outstanding argumentation of both contestants - see highlights https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJXcFtY9cWY - and the apparent humanity of Miss Debater.
Debating requires expert and general knowledge, reasoning, creative thinking, eloquent expression and the skilful appeal to emotions, all skills once considered unattainable by machines. No longer. In this case both the computer and its adversary showed ample evidence of mastering these competencies. Interestingly Natarajan was expecting emotional arguments from Miss Debater and it was his readiness to address these with spontaneity that helped him win. I am sure she has learnt from this and she is probably thinking about how to outdo her opponent next time.
Earlier milestones of human vs machine contests include the famous 1997 chess match in which IBM’s computer system Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, a chess grandmaster. In 2011 IBM’s Watson supercomputer defeated two record-winning contestants in Jeopardy, a general knowledge quiz. And in 2016 Alphabet’s AlphaGo famously proved artificial intelligence can master the ancient and intricate game of Go by beating the world champion in a set of five games. The machine had learnt to play and had developed many creative new moves on its own.
Machines did not beat humans at chess, Jeopardy and Go the first time round, indeed they learnt to win after having fought many losing battles. If AI can one day master complex philosophical reasoning, might that be the right moment to tell the likes of Zenon, Socrates and Descartes to get a real job?
Besides excelling in pure reason, it is becoming clear that superstar machines can really learn to display and manage emotions and be amazingly creative, faculties hitherto monopolized by humans. DeepMind, the company that designed AlphaGo, argue that their products are already doing this.
Artificial Intelligence is entering our lives in myriads of different ways, influencing sectors as diverse as transport, health, entertainment, politics and war. As we move from AI in fiction to AI in reality, there will be intended and unintended outcomes, so it is not too soon to consider the ethical and social dimensions of AI. A lawless AI future is frightening and potentially catastrophic. DeepMind, has already set up a new research unit, DeepMind Ethics & Society. Their goal is to fund research on privacy, transparency, fairness, economic impact, governance and accountability and managing AI risk.
For those of us whose dreams of radical innovation and digital transformation have stumbled upon obstinate people with unbending mindsets, AI will be a big bonus. Expect intelligent machines which, through their own learning, will be able to change themselves, at a much faster pace than those awkward humans.
Expect existential issues to troll and pollute our innocent debates on the value of innovation and entrepreneurship for mankind.
Expect arguments denying that we exist just because we think – because not all machines will be Cartesian.
And expect to be questioned by the ghost of a somewhat deranged prince on whether you should be or not be – because some machines are bound to be Shakespearean.