A.I. a threat to humanity?

Stephen Hawking recently was commenting on the subject of artificial intelligence and made a startling statement  “it could be the greatest thing ever in humanity, but also the last”. Considering that Stephen Hawking is considered by many to be the smartest person on the planet, not to mention he resided in the same chair at Cambridge University that Sir Isaac Newton once sat, we probably should at least pay him the courtesy of listening and discussing what he has to say on the subject.  We are entering a period where the concept of A.I. is not far out fantasy , no longer the realm of film and fiction.  Breakthroughs are being made at breath-taking speeds.  I would not suggest it will be a reality in the next 5 years,  though we are seeing technology accelerate with faster and more often.  Technology  breakthroughs are occurring that are changing how we work and play.  We are already seeing the concept of robotics entering the workforce. The robots today are still very process oriented, but we are seeing robots that can gather information and make decisions based on that information. A case in point would be the Rumba robotic vacuum cleaner by iRobot. Every house is different in its layout, yet eth Rumba adjuts to those differences.  As things move forward frightening prognosis begin to surface about humanities future.  Evan Tesla Motor’s billionaire founder Elon Musk has chimed in on the subject stating it could be a potential threat to humanity.  Going so far as to say,”We are summoning the Demon”. It is worth discussing, in fact it would be dangerous not to. As Dante said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who did nothing during a time of moral crisis”.  To be silent on AI would be to reserve one’s place with Lucifer.

There are mainstream companies like Google, Twitter, Amazon and Facebook who are leading the way in this category, perhaps not directly but indirectly.   If you look at basic search, so much of what you are searching is made available before you have even finished typing what your search request is going to be.  They are harnessing the data that we provide and creating complex algorithms to help meet our immediate needs and maximize our time while maybe shoving us a little in the direction marketers would like us to go.  Another company is Amazon as it looks to what today is simple robotics technology to automate the warehouse.  But they are thinking much broader.  They want search to be optimized for the individual so that it can help decide for you.  These examples to some may not seem relevant, but what is happening in the internet is a baby step towards the grand design if A.I..  Fundamentally as AI develops a large part will be about taking large sets of data, analyzing and coming to some form of judgement.  Today that data is being driven by the internet and the aforementioned companies are leading the way in collecting that data. Tomorrow that data gathered will create actionable outcomes that will be carried out by intelligent machines, not humans.

John Maynard Keynes, the great economist, coined the phrase, “Technological Unemployment” back in the thirties.  Realizing even then as we get more efficient in manufacturing with automation we are taking away jobs.  Today we are entering a new realm of “technological unemployment”.  With A.I. we can envision certain industries being reduced.  One article even noted, we may not need lawyers.  How can that be anything but good?  But to date the role of robotics and perceived A.I. has been reserved for low skill labor, many jobs in manufacturing.  The blue-collar world.  What we can see moving forward is a world where the creation of these new intelligent devices will start replacing jobs in the white-collar world.  Keep in mind all that information made available online will be available to these new breed of machines as they will all be connected devices, connected to the internet, to the cloud. This will be a completely new phenom, one that has not been widely discussed, let alone prepared for.

One of the key points Mr Hawking’s makes is about control.  It can be nice in a world where someone or some group can play god with robotic gadgets.  Make them kind, make them useful.  However it is a difficult task if not impossible to put limits on technological advancement.  We want to push forward as fast as we can making major breakthroughs, but as is often the case we make these breakthroughs without understanding the consequences.  Ultimately when you are talking about artificial intelligence you are discussing the possibility of creating something that is capable of reason.  That can act on its own.  And probably most importantly can make its own decisions.  That ability to look at some situation or some one and based on the information it possesses decide its fate.  It would go beyond hand to robotic hand combat, but in usual Hawking’s fashion he has a sense of humor about that scenario as well.  Recently he was on John Oliver’s show, Oliver asked, “Why would I not want to fight a robot” and in Hawking’s deadpan fashion, “you would lose”.  But that is simply the physical aspect of a robot.  What will the reasoning component of the robot decide?

A part of A.I. is creating intelligence and eventually perfecting the human mind.  I am not sure the consequences of that is fully understand, if it were to be perfected what we would really be giving these synthetic humans would be the right of self-determination. The very right to judge. Time and time again in film we see the scenario of judgement placed on mankind.  Actually it is usually a James Cameron film.  It seems that in the end  it never rules in the human race’s favor.  I would like to believe we are better than that.  However given what we are given in our media, we seem hell-bent of a diet of crime, violence, death and destruction.  Elon Musk in a recent quote spoke of how A.I. if used to get rid of Spam, may decide the easiest path is to ge rid of those who create it, humans.  You can see the danger here could be a simple mistake in a line of code or as we may refer to it, “a bug”.

For those who saw the Spielberg movie “A.I.” a central theme was what if you create something and give it the ability to learn and feel.  To care. Can we envision a robot with a soul?  That is something rarely discussed.  It would be a handy feature to have.  If a robot with AI had to make a decision on the human race based on the facts alone, it may make a very quick decision.  However if it was capable of emotions it may have sympathy.  It may even rationalize that most humans are actually kind and caring.  A much nobler achievement.  That is the beauty of science and technology, we are challenged to push boundaries to push limits.  But in trying to recreate humans are we replacing humans?  Our souls, our spirituality are what make us human, it is what makes us unique.

Finally there is the morality question.  To create and determine life. Do we have the right?  Will what we create have the right?  What will AI decide?  It begins to sound like James Cameron’s “Terminator”.  However in our lust for competitive advantage, increased revenues and profits, an opportunity to dominate an industry, the questions of morality of the human cost may never be asked.  It is within that discussion that we can see a way forward.  I  believe science hates the discussion as morality seems to be more of a spiritual discussion, but ultimately it is the vast plain where the two must meet to determine their ultimate fate.  That is what separates us, the eternal conflict of our existence, humanity.

The famed computer scientist, John McCarthy, who coined the term Artificial Intelligence defines it as, “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines”.  All the focus is on the word intelligent, the other words are disciplines but intelligence is a very human word.  The latter part, “machines” is very cold and uninspiring.  Machines are thought to be without feeling, without emotion. They are exact, and when working properly, never-failing.  They are everything we are not.  Elon Musk also pointed out recently that things are advancing far quicker than most people realize.  I will add that Newt Gingrich (yes that one) said once, “In the first 25 yrs of the 21st Century we will pass everything done in the 20th Century “.  As we watch we can see that is all but too prophetic. I will add the next ten years following the first 25, will technological advancement will crush everything done in the first 25. Beyond that?  No need to worry, we will not be around to witness it.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann November 3, 2014



In 2007 this video began to go viral in the tech sector discussing the future of media and the role of a potential giant Googlezon. The potential merger of two giants of the internet age, Google and Amazon.  If you watch the video it’s interesting to listen to what a potential future with these combined giants of the internet age could potentially accomplish.   The video is very heavy in its tone and its predictions.  As is always the case the future always looks dark and scary. It is also interesting to ponder that what is discussed is not really that far-fetched but closer to reality than one could have imagined.  A future where machines play an increasing role it helping define who we are.

The main theme of the video is the algorithms  used by Google and Amazon can be used to customize any information to a specific individual.  That your daily news could be customized for you, without any human intervention.  The search engines could literally browse the world-wide web and stitch the content together to provide you with your daily news, with your daily view of the world.  In a world where so much of our information is consumed in a very narrow arena dependent on our tastes and political agenda I am not sure this has not already happened. But the notion that the content we desire can be created and pushed to us would take this to a new level.  Our own MSNBC as liberal as we want it or our own Fox News as right-wing as we want it.  It raises other concerns regarding the accuracy of the news information that we would receive.  In a society that already seems on edge with anger, is this a welcome development?

Social media will also play a role, though the video is interesting in its notable absences of Facebook (Apple is not really a part of this either, but the video was created in 2007, the year the iPhone launched).  Instead focusing on Friendster. Microsoft is mentioned as purchasing companies to stay a float in this arena and this has played true. It bought aQuantive and attempted to purchase Yahoo.  None so far has succeeded.  Social Media continues to play a large role in shaping and creating our online presence .  A presence that players like Google, Amazon and Facebook are only to happy to manipulate to better serve and better profit from their customers.  As the video aptly points out search is all about mapping users search patterns to meet customer preferences  in whatever it is they are looking for, whether it be news, music, or online shopping.  Today online stores based on user data can do user based pricing, knowing your shopping behavior and what you are willing to pay, a price can go up or down.  Gone are the days of a “price tag”.

The newspaper we have known for sometime is dying.  That the New York times would emerge as the last vestige of the traditional paper is not surprising, since they are one of the largest papers in circulation in the  United States.  I can only add that being a current subscriber to my local newspapers, The Seattle Times, I can only decry the lack of newsworthy content in the paper as I have watched through the years the paper dwindle while the costs have only gone up.   I like the idea of a paper as it requires me to spread out the paper and dedicate time to reading the news.  This  differs from the news on the internet, thought much more current, I find like many things in technology it is not dedicated time, but passing time while I multi-task across the web. The video ends with the prediction that New York Times will go offline and be available only top those wishing to pay a premium or to older generations.  This is not that far-fetched.  But I believe the end of the traditional newspaper in print form is inevitable at this point.  This is not news to anyone.

If you look at Amazon and Google today they are enormous giants in their respective arenas, arenas that seem to be converging with each passing second.  That being said the idea of these two companies merging at this point seems a stretch as their respective market caps are $111 billion for Amazon and $230 billion for Google.  It would be a huge merger.  In addition Amazon and Google are becoming competitors in some areas.  In tablets (though Amazon does use the Google Android OS for its Kindle Fire) and reports suggest down the road that Amazon will release its own SmartPhone.  Big mergers are challenging, but at this point n time given both companies track record of success this I believe would be an unwelcome merger not just for the market place, but society as a whole.  Probably the biggest flaw here is with tech giants like these the people at the top have colossal egos.

It is the “impact on society” comment that I spend the most time thinking about.  Technology is creating changes in society at break neck speeds.  If you think over the last ten years all that has happened, it has come quickly .  We had search and then we had a verb called Google.  We had friends then we had Facebook.  We had read printed books for centuries than all of sudden they were digital.  Alexander Graham Bell did not know about the iPhone when he created the first phone system in the United States.  Nor did Craig McCaw envision the mobile internet, but Apple followed up the iPhone with the iPad.  These significant cultural changes all happened in a tidal wave of excitement over the last ten years.  The next ten years will hold even greater change as we close in on the speed of light in how are daily lives change.

Will there be one or two companies that get out ahead of these changes, like the GoogleZon video predicted?  There will always be companies that manage to take a large lead in the tech sector.  Some stay and some disappear.  There was a time AOL was the king of internet access.  Lotus123 were the spreadsheet kings if you want to go way back.  However in the end it always comes down to a company having a strong leadership with a strong vision of the future.  In today’s world I think that vision has to start with understanding the younger generations as they adopt technology first to meet their lifestyle needs.  If you think about the great changes in the last decade it has been social media, smartphones, and search or the 3 S’ as I call them.  Looking forward despite it’s bad IPO I see Facebook playing a large role in the future primarily because starting at the top with Mark Zuckerberg they have the type of leader that understands the role technology plays to the younger audiences.  I also see that at Google with Sergei Brin and Larry Page.  Taking chances without a care for the results.Only focused on the future role if technology.

In the end will this take us down a path as ominous as predicted in the GoogleZon video?  There is no doubt technology has and will have a positive role to play in our lives that will save us and our country money (I am thinking healthcare when I think of the country).  It will make our days more efficient.  It will make businesses more efficient. However in a world where information is at our fingertips how that information is used and manipulated can have very negative results in how our society functions.  It is happening now and in ways that five years ago were not imaginable. When you view the video you get a sense of Big Brother being upon us.  That Orwell’s future is becoming reality, but it was not the communists that created Big Brother.  We created it all on our own entrepreneurial spirit.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 28, 2012

Facebook + Skype = Microsoft

One minute you’re a villain and an idiot named Steve Ballmer and the next you are a saint and a genius named Steve Ballmer. That is the way the industry flows. This past week, Facebook CEO and boy wonder Mark Zuckerberg announced something he dubbed, “awesome” and then proceeded to unveil video chat for Facebook using Skype.  Today Skype is in the process of being purchased by Microsoft for the paltry sum of $8.5 billion.  For Microsoft this Facebook announcement would strike either of pure genius or luck.  In any case it raises a lot of eyebrows as there is a lot to think about from the future of technology to the survival of Steve Ballmer.

When I think about the future of communications and how we are evolving, Facebook is a great place to look and ingest what is happening with how interact as humans.  Several months ago my old alma matter, Sammamish High School,  had its 25th year high school reunion for the Class of ’85 .  It was a bad day that was chosen (no fault of the organizer), the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, not many people went, for obvious reasons.  I would have liked to have gone, but it just was not going to happen with all my family commitments. Later in May a bunch of my old high school buddies got together for a weekend get together and as we were walking on the beach we started talking about the recent high school reunion.  My old high school buddy Mark made the astute observation that Facebook has killed the high school reunion.  That is true.  I don’t need a reunion to hear about people from that pasts lives, I see and read about them every day.  It’s both great and sad, but technology keeps evolving making these societal changes happen. Bringing us up to date with the new deal between Facebook and Skype we may finally be on the brink of a new communications paradigm that will see live video streaming reach the masses.  The deal for Skype is huge as it gives instant access to over 600 million Facebook users.  It will be global in scope as Facebook is growing faster outside the US than in the US.  It will give users an old fashioned way to communicate in a new paradigm: face to face.  I must admit in today’s world of email, text messaging and social networking I miss the dynamic of taking the time to get together and talk, freely.  However maybe to a certain extent maybe this paradigm shift will bring face to face communications, back but in a different physical medium.

What should be interesting is to see how this “new” communication tool is used.  Facebook is great for reaching out to old friends, but it also allows you to reach out to those high school classmates I did not know (and in some cases I did not really want to know).  In short Facebook could become like my own personal phone book in the cloud.  Some of the things envisioned in science fiction novels and film may now be on the verge of being reality.  What will be cool is as the quality of streams get better we will have this full screen – no more little windows on our desktop.  We should have instant – on capabilities, meaning the moment a user accepts my request (in old terms, “answers the phone”) the video stream will instantly commence.  Keep in mind as great as technology is there are somethings it still does not as well as the technology it replaces, case in point are old lan line phones.  I have no doubt that eventually performance will be better and the experience, as is already evident will be much richer.  There will be a large amount of excitement in this new paradigm.

A big winner here could be my old employer, Microsoft.  They invested early in Facebook and now their recent acquisition, Skype, has a deal with the world’s most popular social networking site.  This could be a “killer” app for Facebook (ok..I am getting so tired of the term “killer” app).  I would caution senior execs at Microsoft against re-branding this with the “Microsoft” name.  I can hear the arguments already, “Microsoft is one of the worlds most recognizable brand names, who wouldn’t want this brand plastered all over their site?”  But an interesting study might be how do younger audiences view the name?  It’s never the first question that gets you to your answer but the fourth or fifth.  This deal could help Skype get into the stratosphere of mainstream technology, to be our phone service of the future.  It should be interesting if other services like Twitter, follow suit.  Leave well enough alone is my final verdict on this one, but internal corporate politics I am afraid will get in the way.  It’s hard t change things in your DNA.

Finally there is Steve Ballmer, the long serving Microsoft CEO, who is in desperate need of a win.  Both externally and internally.  Externally he has had 10 years of a stock that besides a meager dividend, has provided little value back to shareholders.  Internally he is loathed for his inability to provide a vision and strategic direction to the company and its employees.  The Skype purchase was initially considered overpriced and a waste of money by Microsoft, for a bunch of technology they already had.  This announcement by Facebook, already has reduced the pressure,as in has provided a little “panache” to an increasingly stale company.   It remains to be seen if long-term this could be a turning point for Microsoft.  But at least in the in term they can breathe a little easier and maybe do something rare at Microsoft these days…smile.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans  Henrik Hoffmann July 14, 2011