We no longer give much attention to the fact that robots are around us all the time and perform many functions that were done by human beings. For instance, robots are being used to perform surgical procedures that were done by human beings. They are now being trained to drive cars; once they are able to do that could take over what services such as Uber and Lyft now perform: pick up passengers in answer to the commands they receive and deliver the passengers to the address indicated by them. The applications for machines seem pretty much endless as they become more integrated with human lives and societies in which they live and function. However, replicating human activity and human behaviour means that machines can make mistakes as humans do.
Most humans have the experience and training to recognise where and when they have gone wrong and correct themselves. A surgeon watching a robot performing a complicated procedure will recognise if the machine has made a mistake. He (or she) will step forward and take over the procedure from the robot. The next step in the development of artificial intelligence, AI, is to have machines develop conscientiousness.
For a long time associating the word “consciousness” with machines was regarded as unthinkable. People doing work in the area of AI avoided the use of the word and associate it with the working of machines. Until the time the data on mistakes human beings made and the way they corrected themselves led to the writing of algorithms — the language machines are taught to use — became available to write for the machines. Robots, in other words, could be taught to learn from their mistakes and correct themselves. They acquired consciousness. Since writing this language meant gathering an enormous amount of data and analysing it was useful if the size of the population generating this information was large. When you combine the size of the population with information on what people do, a country such as China has a clear advantage. It is well on the way to developing “supercomputing” of the type only the United States is able to do with the equipment it had built over time. This is primarily the reason why governments in America are preventing China from building that capacity. Before discussing the steps the administrations headed by Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden have taken to prevent China from moving in that direction, I will tell the story of the development of AI.
The term artificial intelligence has gained considerable currency ever since Microsoft made an investment of $1 billion in OpenAI, a tiny San Francisco based company. It was initially called ChatGPT that came to the notice of the investment community late last year. Microsoft is headed by Satya Nadella, an IT expert of Indian origin. In the years since the first investment, Nadella has added another $2 billion to equip OpenAI with huge amounts of computing power it needs to build more capacity in what it calls chatbot.
According to one assessment, “Microsoft is now poised to challenge Big Tech companies like Google, Amazon and Apple with a technological advantage the company has not possessed for more than two decades.” During a visit to India, Nadella announced that he was in talks to invest another $10 billion to push OpenAI technology even further. With new money coming in, Microsoft would be in the lead of what has become the hottest technology in the tech industry. ChatGPT answers questions, writes poetry and handles almost any topic thrown its way. It is now the most conspicuous example of technology called generative artificial intelligence, description for a system that can generate text, images and other media in response to short prompts. The new generative artificial technologies could reinvent everything from online search engines like Google. It would further advance digital assistants like Alex and Siri that could answer more complicated questions. “It is just fascinating to see how these generative models are capturing the imagination,” Nadella told his audience in India. “I think it is a golden age.”
With backing from Microsoft, OpenAI has gone on to build a milestone technology called GPT-3 known as a large language model with the ability to generate text on its own, including tweets, blog posts, news articles and even computer codes. Google, Meta and other software giants have spent years attempting to build models that have the same ability and capacity as ChatGPT. The AI systems develop their skills and capacity by studying and analysing enormous amount of digital text including emails, books, entries in Wikipedia. “Building these systems really requires a supercomputer — and there are not many of them on the planet,” said Aiden Gomez who was a senior researcher at Google. In late November of 2022, Microsoft used ChatGPT to make a million people feel as if they were chatting with another human being. In fact, they were talking to a robot which was able to respond intelligently to drifts in the conversation.
A recent newspaper article describes what its authors saw in a creative centre called the Creative Machine Lab. One of the earliest self-aware robots to emerge from the laboratory “had four hinged legs and a black body with sensors attached at different points. By moving around and noting how the information entering its sensors changed, the robot created a stick figure stimulation of itself. As the robot continued to move around, it used a machine learning algorithm to improve the fit between its self-model and its actual body. It had figured out how to walk without being shown how to walk.”
With a large population now estimated at close to 225 million, a fairly large penetration of mobile telephones and extensive use of personal computers, Pakistan could enter the fast-growing field of “artificial” intelligence. For that to happen, public policy should encourage private enterprise to move in that direction. Public policy would need to do a number of things: among them developing training centres for the youth and creating a synergistic relationship with China as Beijing comes under pressure from the United States and also as the share of the young in its population begins to significantly decline.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2023.
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