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AI taught itself to beat us at our own game — what does it mean?

November 3, 2017

Q&A with ASU computer science professor provides a glimpse into the future

Smart just got beaten by smarter, and it taught itself.

Two weeks ago Google DeepMind announced that the artificial intelligence program AlphaGo Zero soundly beat all previous versions of AlphaGo in the ancient Chinese board game Go, teaching itself to become the best Go player ever, human or machine, in just 40 days. 

Previous versions of AlphaGo were trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games of Go to learn what humans required 3,000 years to master. AlphaGo Zero had only the rules of Go to work with, mastering the game without human assistance by playing itself.

Some experts believe the victory moves the needle on AI, pushing forth a new AI-driven industrial revolution, while others are worried about a robot uprising that will threaten people’s jobs and security.

Arizona State University's Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor of computer science the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, works in artificial intelligence and focuses on planning and decision-making, especially in the context of human-machine collaboration. As president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Kambhampati provides a glimpse into future in this Q&A with ASU Now.  

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Subbarao Kambhampati

Question: What does the ability of AlphaGo Zero to teach itself play the game of Go at super-human level tell us about the state of artificial intelligence?

Answer: AlphaGo Zero is an impressive technical achievement, in as much it as it learns the game of Go purely from self-play, without any human intervention. It is, however, still an example of narrow AI. While we romanticize ability in Go and Chess as signs of high-intellect, the games don’t actually have that much in common with real world. For example, there aren’t that many real world scenarios or tasks for which unlimited self-play with a perfect simulator is feasible — something AlphaGo Zero depends on.

Because of this, human learning is forced to be a lot more parsimonious in terms of examples, depending instead on background knowledge accumulated over a lifetime to analyze single examples more closely

Q: What do we as humans have to gain in creating intelligence smarter than us?

A: I think we have always worked on creating machines better than us in narrow spheres. We don’t compete with calculators in arithmetic, or with cranes on weight lifting. We found ways to augment our overall abilities with the help of these specialized superhuman machines. So it goes with intelligent systems specialized to narrow areas. For example, image recognition systems that can read radiology images better than humans can be used to help improve the diagnostic capabilities of the human doctors.

Q: The experts seem to disagree on the dangers of whether or not AI is dangerous to the economy and to mankind. What is your perspective?

A: I find the “AI as a threat to humankind” arguments advanced by the likes of Elon Musk and Nick Bostrom rather far-fetched. These "Terminator" scenarios often distract attention from the more important discussions we need to have about the effects of increased autonomy and automation on our society.

It is increasingly clear that AI will have big impact on many types of routine jobs — whether they are blue collar or white collar. We need to educate the public about this and provide retraining opportunities for those affected by the job displacement.

Q: Is there something we can do to develop AI technology that will work with us rather than replace or threaten us?

A: For much of its history, AI has focused on autonomy and surpassing humans in various tasks, than on the far more important, if less glamorous, goal of cooperation and collaboration with humans. I believe that AI research should focus a lot more on human-aware AI systems that are designed from the ground-up to collaborate with us. After all, it is this ability we have of working together, rather than that of playing a game of Go, that is the true hallmark of our intelligence (even if we tend to take it for granted).

To do this well, AI systems need to learn and use mental models of the humans they work with, and take aspects of social and emotional intelligence much more seriously. I joke that they have been the Rodney Dangerfield of AI research — they weren’t given much respect. This is why human-aware AI is the main focus of our research group at ASU.

Top photo illustration courtesy of Pixabay.

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ASU Project Humanities hosts 'Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes' educator Jane Elliott

November 3, 2017

Anti-racism activist Jane Elliott hates what’s happened to this country lately.

“We are less civilized now than we were 500 years ago,” Elliott said. “We should be over this. I thought we would have reached the point where we all realize there’s only one race — the human race.”

Best known as the elementary school teacher behind the famous “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise, Elliott is coming to ASU to help people recognize, identify, and appreciate the differences on which power is assigned, and some of the ways in which we are conditioned to develop some of our self-perceptions and perceptions of others.

ASU’s Project Humanities is hosting “An Evening with Jane Elliott” on Nov. 9. The event is part of the initiative’s fall 2017 programming for its ongoing campaign, “Humanity 101: Creating a Movement.” Elliott’s talk begins at 6 p.m. at Central High School, 4525 N. Central Ave., Phoenix. Admission is free and open to the public. Go here to reserve a seat for the event.

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Neal A. Lester

“We had no idea when we considered inviting Jane Elliott as our fall signature speaker that ASU and the Valley would respond so enthusiastically,” said Neal A. Lester, founding director of ASU’s Project Humanities and Foundation Professor of English. “When Eventbrite tickets became available, it was like a Beyoncé or Adele concert. They went like hotcakes.”

So much so that Project Humanities had to move to a much larger venue to accommodate the demand. Lester believes the reason is Elliott’s no-nonsense, straight talking approach to combatting racism. She introduced that approach when she exploded onto the national consciousness in April 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the time Elliott was a third grade teacher in an all-white elementary school in Riceville, Iowa. She involved her students in an exercise in discrimination based on eye color. It demonstrated how innocent children could turn nasty, vicious and discriminating through special treatment. She did this by telling the blue-eyed group they were intellectually superior to the brown-eyed group, and encouraged them to openly ridicule their counterparts.

Elliott also allowed the blue-eyed group to go to lunch first, gave them extra time during recess, full-time access to drinking fountains and discouraged the two groups from playing with each other. Even she was astounded by the results — derogatory comments and insults were hurled, personalities radically changed, and fights broke out.

“Children who I considered shy and academically fair were now suddenly outspoken, arrogant and condescending,” Elliott said. “The power and prejudice quickly went to their heads.”

Elliott said the big takeaway for her was that people are not born racist, rather they are born into a racist society.

“And like anything else, if you can learn it, you can unlearn it,” Elliott said.

The exercise was her attempt to help students understand some of the reasons why blacks were taking to the streets and rioting, demanding equal treatment with whites.

“People say to me, ‘How could you do that to those little white children for one day?’ I say to them, ‘Apply that feeling to how it must feel to be a person of color in this country who has been suffering from this treatment all their life,’” Elliott said. “And it’s not just one person doing this to them — it’s a society who does this to them on a daily basis.”

Elliott, 85, said even though the exercise made her an internationally famous educator, she and her family paid a heavy price. She said teachers at her school wouldn’t talk to her, town leaders made her a pariah and she received numerous death threats. She also admitted family members didn’t like her at times.

"A man who is writing a book about the subject asked my daughter the other day, ‘Did you hate your mother?’” Elliott said. “She said, ‘Yes, I hated my mother. I hated her because she was taking away all of my friends and causing me a whole lotta pain.’ All four of my kids went through that phase — ‘Mom, if you just shut up we’d be alright.’”

But Elliott couldn’t shut up, or sit quietly and do nothing. She used every platform possible — a PBS documentary called “Eye of the Storm,” appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” and numerous newspaper and magazine articles — to deliver her message.  

“It’s all the result of ignorance based on skin color — the ignorance of thinking you can do this forever and get away with it,” Elliott said. “There is nothing subtle about racism when it happens to you on a daily basis, and today that extends to [the LGBTQ community]. It’s constant for them. It’s unacceptable behavior in a democracy.”

Since then Elliot has conducted the same exercise in workshops with people of all ages in cities all over the United States and in several countries.

Elliot said America was making positive strides regarding racism until recently. She believes the surge of white nationalist groups espousing separatist ideologies, anonymous hate speech through social media and the Internet, and politicians and citizens not speaking up when they see overt discrimination, is dividing the country.

That, she said, was recently underscored when she received a threatening phone call at her Iowa residence — the first such threat in almost 15 years.

“I think we have proof now that if you don’t put a stop to racist remarks or make people aware of what the problem is, you end up where we are right now,” Elliott said.

“These are dangerous times.”

For more information, call 480-727-7030 or visit the Project Humanities website.

Top photo courtesy of