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ASU professor: AI will reshape world

ASU professor leading the largest organization in artificial intelligence field.
June 6, 2017

Artificial intelligence's potential impacts raise promising possibilities, societal challenges

Interest in artificial intelligence has exploded, with some predicting that machines will take over and others optimistically hoping that people will be freed up to explore creative pursuits.

According to Arizona State University Professor Subbarao Kambhampati, the reality will be more in the middle — but the technology will certainly bring about a restructuring of our society.

AI will accomplish a lot of good things, Kambhampati said, but we must also be vigilant about possible ramifications of the technology. And yes, some jobs will be lost — but maybe not the ones people most often think of.

The professor of computer science and engineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering is well qualified to enter the debate. He has been doing work in the area — commonly called “AI” — for more than three decades, and he is at the midpoint of a two-year term as president of the international Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the largest organization of scientists, engineers and others in the field.

Kambhampati, whose current research focuses on developing “human-aware” AI systems to enable people and intelligent machines to work collaboratively, is also on the board of trustees of the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society (PAI), which aims to help establish industry-wide best practices and ethics guidelines.

The following interview is edited from a recent conversation with him.

Question: You became president of the AI association at a time when public awareness of these technologies and the issues they raise has exploded. What’s sparking the widespread interest?

Answer: AI as a scientific field has actually been around since the 1950s and has made amazing, if fitful, progress in getting machines to show hallmarks of intelligence. The Deep Blue computer’s win over the world chess champion in 1997 was a watershed moment, but even after that, AI remained a staid academic field. Most people didn’t come into direct contact with AI technology until relatively recently.

Arizona State University Professor Subbarao Kambhampati in his robotics lab
ASU Professor Subbarao Kambhampati with one of the robots used in his lab team’s research aimed at enabling effective collaboration between humans and intelligent robots. The wooden blocks spell out the name of the lab, Yochan, meaning “thought” or “plan” in the Sanskrit language. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

With the recent advances of AI in perceptual intelligence, we all now have smartphones that can hear and talk back to us and recognize images. AI is now a very ubiquitous part of our everyday lives, so there’s a visceral understanding of its impact.

Q: Plus, it’s a big driver of major industries, right?

A: In 2008, for instance, few if any tech companies were mentioning investments and involvement in AI in their annual reports or quarterly earnings reports. Today you’ll find about 300 major companies emphasizing their AI projects or ventures in those reports.

The members of the Partnership for Artificial Intelligence, which I am involved with, include Amazon, Facebook, Google’s Deep Mind, IBM and Microsoft. So, yes, AI is now a very big deal.

Q: The big question about AI is what it means for not only business and the economy, but what it portends for society when AI machines are doing more jobs that people used to do. What’s your perspective on that?

A: Elon Musk (the prominent engineer, inventor and tech entrepreneur) started this trend of AI fears by remarking that what keeps him up at night is the idea of super-intelligent machines that will become more powerful than humans. Then Stephen Hawking (renowned physicist and cosmologist) chimed in. Statements like that, coming from influential people, of course make the public worry. 

I don’t take such a pessimistic view. I think AI is going to do a lot of good things. But it is also going to be a very powerful technology that will shape and change our world. So we should remain vigilant of all the ramifications of this powerful technology and work to mitigate unintended consequences. Fortunately, this is a goal shared by both AAAI and PAI.

Q: Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who was defeated by the Deep Blue computer, writes that we should embrace AI, that it will free people from work so that they can develop their intellectual and creative capabilities. Others are saying the same. Do you agree?

A: I think Kasparov and others who say this are maybe too optimistic. We see from the past that new technology has taken away certain jobs but also created new kinds of jobs. But it’s not certain that will always be the case with the proliferation of AI.

It seems clear that some professions are going to disappear, and not just blue-collar jobs like trucking, but also high-paying white-collar jobs. There are going to be many fewer radiologists, because machines are already doing a better job of reading X-rays. Machines can also be much faster and better at doing the kind of information gathering and research now done by paralegals, for instance.

This is why we have to start thinking about how society is going to be restructured if AI technologies and systems are doing much of the work that people once did.

Q: What would such a restructuring look like?

A: This is quite an open question, and organizations like AAAI and PAI are trying to get ahead of the curve in answering it.

I do want to emphasize that I don’t think it is solely the job of AI experts, or of industry, to think about these issues of long-term restructuring. This is something that society at large has to contend with. We also have to realize that AI consequences play into already existing social ills such as societal biases, wealth concentration and social alienation. We have to work to make sure that AI moderates rather than amplifies these trends.

Q: What can those in the AI field do proactively to produce the most positive outcomes from the expansion of the technology?

A: We can take potential impacts into consideration when deciding in what directions we want to take our research and development. Much research now, like mine, is focusing on systems that are not intended to replace humans but to augment and enhance what humans are doing. We want to enable humans and machines to work together to do things better than what humans can do alone.

For AI systems to work with humans, they need to acquire emotional and social intelligence, something humans expect from their co-workers. That’s where human-aware AI comes into play.

Q: What keeps you excited about your research?

A: I’ve always thought that the biggest questions facing our age are about three fundamental things: the origin of the universe, the origin of life and the nature of intelligence.

AI research takes you to the heart of one of them. In developing AI systems, I get a window into the basic nature of intelligence. That’s why I tell my students that it takes a particularly bad teacher to make AI uninteresting.

That is what hooked me into this work. And now I’m getting the opportunity to go beyond the technical aspects of the field and have a voice on issues of ethics and practices and societal outcomes. That is energizing me even more.

Listen to an extensive presentation and discussion led by Kambhampati about the growing interest in artificial intelligence technology and its potential impacts on society.

 

Top photo: Advances in artificial intelligence technologies are enabling robots to move far beyond merely performing rudimentary repetitive tasks. They can increasingly do complex work that requires keen perception of their environment and interaction with people. Photo by Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU

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Joe Kullman

Science writer , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-965-8122

 
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American Bar Association elects ASU Law Professor Myles Lynk to Board of Governors

June 6, 2017

Arizona State University Professor Myles Lynk is one of the most respected law professors the country, and a national organization has affirmed it.

Lynk has been tapped by the likes of the White House, ASU’s president and the chief justice of the United States for his objective legal mind, as well as his sense of fairness.

More recently he was elected by the American Bar Association (ABA) to serve on its Board of Governors, which meets about four times a year and oversees the general operation of the association and develops specific plans of action. 

“At its best, in America the law is an instrument that helps define and protect the rights of even the weakest among us while restraining even the most powerful from abusing the rights of others,” said Lynk, a professor in ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

“Thus, I agree with the great English philosopher John Locke, who wrote, ‘Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.’”

ASU Now caught up with Lynk, who is gearing up for his three-year term with the ABA starting in August.  

Question: Congratulations on your new appointment. What does this mean for ASU Law?

Answer: It is not often that a law professor is elected to the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association. I think my election will give ASU Law a greater visibility to the bar nationally, and will afford me an opportunity to showcase the excellence of ASU Law's faculty, students and resources.   

Q: What function does the board perform, and how is this important to the law nationwide?

A: Founded in 1878, and with almost 400,000 members today, the ABA is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. The Board of Governors consists of 44 members, including the officers of the association and board members elected from geographical districts, from the sections of the association, and from different constituencies within the association such as judges and young lawyers.

I am being elected as what is known as a Goal III representative, representing the broad group of minority members of the association. The board oversees the general operation of the association, develops specific plans of action to develop and maintain the work of the association and has the authority to speak and act for the ABA.

The ABA is important to the development of uniform principles in the law, in the promotion of ethical standards for the profession, and for the protection of the public, nationwide. 

Q: How does our nation’s law system compare with other countries around the world?

A: “Equal justice under law” are the words that are carved into the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. This is what we strive for and, I believe, achieve to a greater degree than most other countries around the world. Though it is complex, the legal system in the United States is more transparent than in many other countries.

While access to justice and the availability of legal representation for all remain serious issues that our nation must confront, our courts and justice system are administered with integrity and competence. In fact, one of the reasons that non-U.S. citizens are so willing to invest their funds in the U.S. and immigrate to the U.S. is because of their confidence in our legal system. No legal system can be perfect, but for a heterogeneous society such as ours is, the American legal system is one of the ways we define our sense of community as a people, “under law.”      

Q: What is your personal philosophy of the law?

A: I see the law as an instrument, as the means by which societies order their priorities of social organization and provide a socially acceptable way to punish wrongdoers and resolve civil disputes that arise within the society. I definitely view the law as a vehicle that can promote equal justice and social order, but I recognize that it can also be used to protect the status quo. 

Today, our civil society is challenged to find in the law ways to address the tensions that exist between our constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and free association, and the equally important rights of all Americans to be fully integrated into a society that protects them from discrimination, hate crimes and harassment. We are also challenged to enact and enforce laws that deal responsibly with the complexities of immigration into our country. At its best, in America the law is an instrument that helps define and protect the rights of even the weakest among us while restraining even the most powerful from abusing the rights of others. Thus, I agree with the great English philosopher John Locke, who wrote, "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins."     

Q: What is so intriguing about the law that keeps you interested in the field?

A: After all these years, the rule of law and the role of lawyers in society continue to fascinate me. As chair for the past three years of the ABA's Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, I have been able to help interpret and develop the very rules that guide the conduct of lawyers in their professional lives, and as a professor of law here at ASU, I have been fortunate to be able to study the law, and to teach the law to the next generations of lawyers. The hopeful enthusiasm of my students enriches me and encourages me. They may not keep me young in fact, but they have kept me young in spirit and in my own enthusiasm for the rule of law in America.     

 

Top photo: Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Professor Myles Lynk was recently elected to the American Bar Association's Board of Governors, which oversees the general operation of the association and develops specific plans of action. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now