Something is (still) rotten in the kingdom of artificial intelligence

Four types of problems in the land of artificial intelligence.

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Remember the financial crisis? You know what a big part of its origin was? Statistics. The quants of the financial sectors had created statistical models that gave their users the illusion that they had done away with uncertainty. Their spreadsheets with formulas (1960s computer intelligence) and Monte Carlo simulations (1980s computer intelligence) broke down because of the outliers, unleashing the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Given the naivete of many current initiatives, it’s just a matter of time of something likewise happening in the new big data space.

But sometimes it is enough for statistical methods to have very small effects to be useful. So, say you want to influence the US elections. You do not need to convince everybody of your message (fake or not). You maybe can swing an election a very worthwhile 0.2 percent by sending negative messages about a candidate to a selected group of his or her supporters. Suppose you can target a specific 22 percent, say black people who support your opponent for 90 percent. You get 50 percent of them to see a message that puts the candidate in a racist or antiblack context. If this suppresses the turnout of 80 percent of those that saw the message by 10 percent while (out of anger because the message is so unfair) it increases the turnout of 5 percent of that same group by 60 percent (they are really angry about the unfairness of the message), then you have just created a 0.2 percent lower poll result for your opponent. A couple of such differences may win you elections. This is not farfetched. Such weaponized information has been used in the US 2016 election and in the Brexit referendum, where very small effects like these have apparently had a big effect on the outcome. It gets even better the more “micro” the targeting becomes.

In other words: We are already in the age of information warfare. Statistics on large data sets is an important tool. And we, the population, are the target. We, the population, have been lured by “free” and addictive products like Facebook, and we, the population, have been not only been set up as a resource to be bought and sold (not physically, but mentally) and set up as the instruments by which information warfare is fought. So, how does it feel to be a means to somebody else’s end? Nobody is aware, so nobody cares.

That suggests that something is different this time. Apparently, the law of large numbers makes it possible for even statistically small or not very reliable technology to have a deciding influence. The first wave of AI was largely ineffective. This new wave actually does have a very big effect on societies. This is especially true in situations of near equilibrium (such as hard-fought elections) where small changes may have huge effects or in situations where false positives or false negatives are not very damaging. District-based democracies may be more vulnerable because of their winner-takes-all setup, but equal representation democracies are not immune. In other words: Our statistics-based methods work very well where small changes in averages are the goal. If you want to improve revenue by a few percent, using methods that may alienate a small part of the population but endear a larger part is a good thing—as long as the negative side doesn’t blow up in your face.

Which brings us to some actual limitations I’d like to draw your attention to.

A shortlist of limitations

Fundamental limitations of statistics-based technologies are:

  • Errors in singulars. Statistical methods are not perfect. We saw this already in the gorilla example, but the best example may be Google Translate. It is OK, but it is far from something that is reliable. Most of the time it needs quite a bit of human intelligence to guess what has been said. Small errors can have too much of a devastating effect for it to become as good as it need be. So, on average the technology does something useful, but for the individual user it cannot be relied on. This means that when you are thinking about the role of statistical methods for your organization, you need to stay away from anything where the answer for the user must be precise. Advice with legal ramifications (e.g., if you give financial advice and the law sets requirements on the care for the individual customer) is a good example where you need more than a chance of being correct to be useful.
  • Unwanted prejudice. Neural networks (deep or otherwise) and mathematically equivalent techniques link inputs and outputs, but you do not know how. So with the tank example, while you think you are targeting richer people, you may be targeting whiter people. Although whiter people may on average be richer, it is still not ethically acceptable to target whiteness as a proxy for richness. Which, ironically, is why proxies are also often used where direct targeting is illegal or unethical. So, while proxies can work for you, unwanted proxies may work against you.
  • Conservatism. Basing your decisions on data from the past turns you into a natural conservative. So, these technologies will fare poorer when change is in the air or when change is needed. This is a bit like Henry Ford’s old statement that if you would have asked the population about improving transportation they would have requested a faster horse, not a car.
  • Spinning out of control. When I worked for BSO Language Technology in the early 1990s, the researchers had created a very simple statistics-based method that outperformed rule-based (in Lisp often) text indexing at a fraction of the fraction of the cost. It went in production at a Dutch national newspaper. The newspaper was so impressed that it wondered if it could fire its entire indexing staff, but we had to warn them. Small errors accumulate and can completely derail the reliability of these statistics-based systems. A good recent example was how Microsoft (really, it should put their efforts in fixing Windows) in March 2016 went live with Tay, a chatbot that was quickly subverted by its users to become a racist persona tweeting praise on Adolf Hitler and got shut down after 16 hours by Microsoft. A year later Microsoft was at it again with Tay’s successor Zo. Which was then caught making similar errors including stating that Windows 8 was spyware, that Windows 10 was no improvement over Windows 7, and that Windows XP was better than Windows 7.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, we can clearly see that the amount of data that is available makes more and more statistical methods effective. And it is growing exponentially, so we’ve seen nothing yet, including the interesting side effects this is having on IT infrastructure. Some label it “intelligent,” “deep learning,” or “cognitive computing,” but the fact remains that it is nothing more than (often pretty simple) statistics on huge data sets. It is not “intelligent,” nor does it really “learn”: the learning is just data-driven, hidden-rules computing, and Dreyfus’s critique that rules have little to do with intelligence still holds. And if someone comes by talking about cognitive computing, please do not listen; the use of such a term is a clear sign that he or she has no clue what he or she is talking about. Don’t forget, already in 1957 researchers produced programs they christened General Problem Solver that really wasn’t that.

The most important lessons are:

  • Statistics can be very effective and worthwhile; they’re not nonsense. But …
  • Make sure your plans for analytics do not assume you can do singulars without people in control (analytics-assisted human activity, or AHA).
  • Make sure your plans take the new brittleness of the “new AI” in account (again: You will need people).
  • Make sure your new statistics-based operations are ethical.
  • Make sure you plan for much more storage and compute power close to that storage.
  • Ignore everyone who talks about “cognitive computing” or “the singularity,” and in general everyone who champions new technologies without understanding their limitations. These people are peddling General Problem Solvers, and they’re going to be very expensive to listen to.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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