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Don’t be fooled by dystopian sci-fi stories: A.I. is becoming a force for good

One of the most famous sayings about technology is the “law” laid out by the late American historian Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” It’s a great saying: brief, but packed with instruction, like a beautifully poetic line of code. If I understand it correctly, it means that technology isn’t inherently good or bad, but that it will certainly impact upon us in some way — which means that its effects are not neutral.

A similarly brilliant quote came from the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.” “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” To adopt that last image, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is the mother of all ships.

It promises to be as significant a transformation for the world as the arrival of electricity was in the nineteenth and twentieth century. But while many of us will coo excitedly over the latest demonstration of DeepMind’s astonishing neural networks, a lot of the discussion surrounding A.I. is decidedly negative. We fret about robots stealing jobs, autonomous weapons threatening the world’s wellbeing, and the creeping privacy issues of data-munching giants.

Heck, once the dream of achieving artificial general intelligence arrives, some pessimists seem to think the only debate is whether we’re obliterated by Terminator-style robots or turned into grey goo by nanobots. While some of this technophobia is arguably misplaced, it’s not hard to see critics’ point. Tech giants like Google and Facebook have hired some of the greatest minds of our generation, and put them to work not curing disease or rethinking the economy, but coming up with better ways to target us with ads.

The Human Genome Project, this ain’t! Shouldn’t a world-changing technology like A.I. be doing a bit more… world changing?

A course in moral A.I.?

2018 may be the year when things start to change. While they’re still small seeds just beginning to sprout green shoots, there’s more evidence that the subject of making A.I. into a true force for good is starting to gain momentum.

For example, starting this semester, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will be teaching a new class, titled “Artificial Intelligence for Social Good.” It touches on many of the topics you’d expect from a graduate and undergraduate class — optimization, game theory, machine learning, and sequential decision making — and will look at these through the lens of how each will impact society. The course will also challenge students to build their own ethical A.I. projects, giving them real world experience with creating potentially life-changing A.I.


“A.I. is the blooming field with tremendous commercial success, and most people benefit from the advances of A.I. in their daily lives,” Professor Fei Fang told Digital Trends. “At the same time, people also have various concerns, ranging from potential job loss to privacy and safety issues to ethical issues and biases. However, not enough awareness has been raised regarding how A.I. can help address societal challenges.”

Fang describes this new course as “one of the pioneering courses focusing on this topic,” but CMU isn’t the only institution to offer one. It joins a similar “A.I. for Social Good” course offered at the University of Southern California, which started last year. At CMU, Fang’s course is listed as a core course for a Societal Computing Ph.D. program.

“Not enough awareness has been raised regarding how A.I. can help address societal challenges.” During the new CMU course, Fang and a variety of guest lecturers will discuss a number of ways A.I. can help solve big social questions: machine learning and game theory used to help protect wildlife from poaching, A.I. being used to design efficient matching algorithms for kidney exchange, and using A.I. to help prevent HIV among homeless young people by selecting a set of peer leaders to spread health-related information. “The most important takeaway is that A.I. can be used to address pressing societal challenges, and can benefit society now and in the near future,” Fang said. “And it relies on the students to identify these challenges, to formulate them into clearly defined problems, and to develop A.I. methods to help address them.”

Challenges with modern A.I.

Professor Fang’s class isn’t the first time that the ethics of A.I. has been discussed, but it does represent (and, certainly, coincide with) a renewed interest in the field.

A.I. ethics are going mainstream. This month, Microsoft published a book called “The Future Computed: Artificial intelligence and its role in society.” Like Fang’s class, it runs through some of the scenarios in which A.I. can help people today: letting those with limited vision hear the world described to them by a wearable device, and using smart sensors to let farmers increase their yield and be more productive.

Ekso Bionics

There are plenty more examples of this kind. Here at Digital Trends, we’ve covered A.I. that can help develop new pharmaceutical drugs, A.I. that can help people avoid shelling out for a high priced lawyer, A.I. to diagnose disease, and A.I. and robotics projects which can help reduce backbreaking work — either by teaching humans how to perform it more safely or even taking them out of the loop altogether.

All of these are positive examples of how A.I. can be used for social good. But for it to really become a force for positive change in the world, artificial intelligence needs to go beyond simply good applications. It also needs to be created in a way that is considered positive by society.

As Fang says, the possibility of algorithms reflecting bias is a significant problem, and one that’s still not well understood. The possibility of algorithms reflecting bias is a significant problem, and one that’s still not well understood. Several years ago, African-American Harvard University PhD Latanya Sweeney “exposed” Google’s search algorithms as being inadvertently racist, by linking names more commonly given to black people with ads relating to arrest records.

Sweeney, who had never been arrested, found that she was nonetheless shown ads asking “Have you been arrested?” that her white colleagues were not. Similar case studies have noticed how image recognition systems will be more likely to associate a picture of a kitchen with women and one of sports coaching with men. In this case, the bias wasn’t necessarily the fault of one programmer, but rather discriminatory patterns hidden in the large sets of data Google’s algorithms are trained on.

The same is true for the “black boxing” of algorithms, which can make them inscrutable to even their own creators. In Microsoft’s new book, its authors suggest that A.I. should be built around an ethical framework, a bit like science fiction writer Isaac Asimov‘s “Three Laws of Robotics” for the “woke” generation. These six principles include the fact that AI systems should be fair, reliable and safe; that they should be private and secure; that they should be inclusive; that they should be transparent, and that they they should be accountable.

“If designed properly, A.I. can help make decisions that are fairer because computers are purely logical and, in theory, are not subject to the conscious and unconscious biases that inevitably influence human decision-making,” Microsoft’s authors write.

More work to be done

Ultimately, this is going to be easier said than done. From most people’s perspective, A.I. research done in the private sector far outstrips work done in the public sector. The problem with this is accountability in a world where algorithms are guarded as secretly as missile launch codes.

There is also no cause for companies to solve big societal problems if it will not immediately benefit their bottom line. (Or score them some brownie points to possibly avoid regulation.) It would be naive to think that all of the concerns raised by profit-driven companies are going to be altruistic, no matter how much they might suggest otherwise. For broader discussions about the use of A.I. for public good, something is going to have to change. Is it recognizing the power of artificial intelligence and putting into place more regulations allowing for scrutiny?

Does it mean companies forming ethics boards, as was the case with Google DeepMind, as part of their research into cutting edge A.I.? Is it awaiting a market-driven change, or backlash, that will demand that tech giants offer more information about the system’s that govern our lives? Is it, as Bill Gates has suggested, implementing a robot tax that will curtail the use of A.I. or robotics in some situations by taxing companies for replacing its workers?

None of these solutions are perfect. And the biggest question of all remains: Who exactly defines ‘good’? Debates about how A.I. can be a force for good in our society will involve a significant number of users, policy makers, activists, technologists, and other interested parties working out what kind of world it is that we want to create, and how to use technology to best achieve that.

As DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman told Wired: “Getting these things right is not purely a matter of having good intentions. We need to do the hard, practical and messy work of finding out what ethical A.I. really means. If we manage to get A.I. to work for people and the planet, then the effects could be transformational.

Right now, there’s everything to play for.”

Courses like Professor Fang’s aren’t the final destination, by any means.

But they are a very good start.

Editors’ Recommendations

Intel warned Chinese tech firms of Spectre and Meltdown ahead of U.S. government

Intel warned certain customers, including Chinese tech firms, of the Spectre and Meltdown security flaws before notifying the U.S. government, The Wall Street Journal reported. The flaws were first discovered by Google’s Project Zero team in June of last year. Intel held off on disclosing the issue while it worked on possible fixes. The company planned to make the announcement on January 9, but The Register broke the story on January 2.

Intel then confirmed the news the next day. Intel did notify several major tech firms in an effort to limit the potential damage and help work on fixes. However, a representative from the Department of Homeland Security said that the department did not learn of the flaws until the news was broken.

Homeland Security is often notified of such issues before the public, and often acts as a source of guidance for how to address them. The NSA was also uninformed of the problem. Rob Joyce, the White House’s top official on matters of cybersecurity, sent out a tweet saying that the NSA was unaware of the vulnerabilities.

Jake-No nuance to my answer.

No lawyerly caveats. NSA did not know about these flaws, nor did they exploit them. I don’t put my good name on the line lightly.

I understand you are disinclined to believe, 1/2. — Rob Joyce (@RobJoyce45) January 13, 2018

Intel refused to name any of the companies it warned prior to the scheduled January 9 announcement. That being said, several of the companies had been identified, including Microsoft, Amazon, Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo, and Chinese cloud-computing firm Alibaba Group Holding.

A representative from Intel said that it had planned to brief others, including the U.S. government, prior to the January 9th announcement. However, the company said that it was unable to do so due to the fact that the story was reported sooner than expected. Jake Williams, a former employee of the National Security Agency and current president of Rendition Infosec LLC, told the Wall Street Journal that the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities would have been of great interest to any intelligence organization.

Williams also warned that it is a “near certainty” that the Chinese government was aware of Spectre and Meltdown before the U.S., given that the Communist Party closely monitors such communications.

Representatives from the Chinese government did not comment on this story.

However, in the past, the country’s foreign ministry has said that it is “resolutely opposed” to all forms of hacking.

Editors’ Recommendations

‘Monster Hunter: World’ welcomes veteran street fighters Ryu and Sakura

Capcom is no stranger to bonus characters, and the epic action-RPG Monster Hunter: World is no exception. Just days after its console release, the Capcom blog announced that Street Fighter favorites Ryu and Sakura would soon be joining the action. Each character comes with new armor sets, which can’t be mixed with other armor pieces.

The full sets can be equipped by either male or female characters, however, and their voices can be changed to match the individual Street Fighter. The armor sets must be unlocked by completing special quests. For PlayStation 4 owners who have a Street Fighter V save file on their console, a special quest will appear shortly, called “Down the Dark Muddy Path.” Completing the quest will reward you with some tickets that the smithy will exchange for the new armor.

Monster hunters on Xbox One and PS4 without the necessary save file will have a bit longer to wait. A new Event Quest will premiere sometime soon, opening up the opportunity for everyone to acquire the bonus items. Some special chat stamps and iconic gestures (Hadouken and Shoryuken) are also on the way.

These items will soon be available in the Xbox Marketplace and PlayStation Store:

  • Guild Card: Bonus Stage (Free)
  • Achievements: Rival, Destined, Living Legend and Bandana Girl (Free)
  • Pose: Shoryuken & Hadoken (Free)
  • Gesture: Street Fighter V Hadoken (£4)
  • Gesture: Street Fighter V Shoryuken (£4)
  • Stamp Set: Street Fighter V Set (£2)

This won’t be the end of crossover characters either, as Capcom previously announced that Mega Man will be joining the game as a Palico, a sidekick companion to help complete quests. The Blue Bomber will come equipped with his own set of weapons accompanied by a classic Mega Man soundtrack. In our review, we found Monster Hunter: World to be an epic update of the cult classic franchise that’s surprisingly accessible to newcomers.

We’ve also got a monster-hunting beginner’s guide to help you get started and provide some help with those elder dragon and wyvern battles.

Monster Hunter: World is presently only available on consoles, although a PC version (a first for the series) is currently being optimized and is planned for a fall 2018 release.

Editors’ Recommendations

Elton John announces his retirement tour with an amazing kaleidoscopic VR video

Rock legend Elton John announced his final concert tour in spectacular fashion with a virtual reality showcase revealing the upcoming “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour, a three-year 300-date whirlwind leading up to his retirement. Ad Week has the details on the event held at Gotham Hall in New York City, where more than 100 journalists decked out with Samsung Gear headsets joined a worldwide streaming audience to embark on a VR journey through his decades-long career. The event ended with a short live performance by Elton John.

You can watch the six-minute VR video here via YouTube. It can be viewed in Google Cardboard or Google Daydream, as well as in regular 2D video. You can also watch a full 34-minute stream featuring live performances and interviews in VR here.

The video features John’s first U.S. show from 1970 at the Troubadour in New York, as well as his legendary Dodgers Stadium concert from 1975. There were no VR cameras around to capture those events, of course, so John turned to the special effects wizards at Spinifex to recreate it. Using a combination of motion capture and CGI, Spinifex recreated John’s entire career, using a body double for his younger self. “It was one of the most amazing parts of the process, because we’d done the green screen shoot, and we shot the Troubadour on August 25th last year, and his opening show was just two blocks down the road,” said Spinifex CEO Ben Casey. “47 years ago to the day when we shot.”

The team authentically recreated all of the iconic singer’s outfits and the evolution of his distinctive eyewear through the ages, down to the last sequin. John himself even donned a motion-capture rig to play 10 songs on the piano. “This isn’t just tech for tech’s sake, the digital assets we are capturing and creating will extend Elton’s magic for generations to come,” said Casey. “Great songs endure the test of time and we believe bringing them to life in this way will enable people 50 years from now to discover and experience the full impact of Elton’s music.”

Casey’s team made their pitch to John at an Oscar party in Los Angeles.

Memorializing his career in VR certainly wasn’t John’s idea, but he’s amazed with the result. “I’m a Luddite,” he said in a CNN interview after the New York presentation. “I’ve never downloaded anything in my life.

Even porn.”

Editors’ Recommendations

MacBook Air vs. MacBook Pro 13 (non-Touch Bar)

With the MacBook Air rumored to be on its last legs, would it still be a good buy? Let’s look at how it stacks up to the low-end MacBook Pro and see if you should get in on what could be the very last MacBook Air — before it vanishes into the ether for all time. The relevant question then is, how exactly do these two Macs compare, and which should get your hard-earned money?

Read on to find out.

MacBook Air 13-inch

MacBook Pro 13-inch

Dimensions 12.8 x 8.94 x 0.11 – 0.68 (in) 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.59 (in) Weight 2.96 pounds 3.02 pounds Processor 5th Generation Intel Core i5 or i7 7th Generation Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 RAM 8GB LPDDR3 1600MHz 8GB LPDDR3 1866MHz Display 13.3-inch LED-backlit display 13.3-inch LED-backlit Retina display Resolution 1,400 x 900 2,560 x 1,600 Storage 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, PCIe SSD 256GB, 512GB, 1TB PCIe SSD Networking 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2 Ports 2 x SB© USB 3, 1 x Thunderbolt 2, SDXC card slot 2 x SB© USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 Webcam 720p FaceTime HD 720p FaceTime HD Operating System MacOS High Sierra MacOS High Sierra Battery 54 watt-hours, up to 12 hours 54.5 watt-hours, up to 10 hours Price £1,000 £1,300+ Availability Available now Available now DT review 4 out of 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars

The new thin versus the old thin

There was a time when the MacBook Air was the Apple product that most deserved its name.

Compared to other models in the line, and for a time most Windows notebooks as well, the MacBook Air really was the most air-like. At least, it was the lightest model to go along with being the thinnest, and that let the MacBook Air carve out a special place in Apple’s MacOS lineup.

Enter the new MacBook Pro. The latest model is also seriously thin and light, almost equal to the MacBook Air.

In fact, while the MacBook Air has its wedge-shaped taper down to 0.11 inch, it’s still thicker at its thicker point than the new MacBook Pro, at 0.68 inch versus 0.59 inch. The new MacBook Pro is also 3.02 pounds, pretty much a rounding error compared to the MacBook Air’s 2.96 pounds. In the end, it would be hard to justify the MacBook Air over the new MacBook Pro in terms of thickness and weight alone, and given everything else that’s better on the MacBook Pro, we have to give it the nod here.

Winner: MacBook Pro

Retina display for the win

The MacBook Air never received a Retina display, meaning it’s stuck with its old-school 1,440 by 900 resolution compared to the MacBook Pro’s 2,560 by 1,600 resolution. That’s 128 pixels per inch compared to 227 pixels per inch. In addition, the MacBook Air’s display maxes out at 300 nits of brightness and it’s limited to the standard sRGB color gamut.

The new MacBook Pro, on the other hand, offers 500 nits of brightness and a wider P3 color gamut.

Digital Trends

What all that translates into is that the MacBook Air’s display is going to look pixelated and dated compared to the MacBook Pro. Both are LED-backlit screens, but the MacBook Pro is going to be brighter in terms of both the amount of light it produces to combat ambient lighting and the splashes of color you’ll enjoy. Both screens are identically sized, but the MacBook Air has much larger and more unsightly bezels than the new MacBook Pro.

The bottom line is that the MacBook Air’s display is antiquated, and seriously lower in quality. There’s no contest, really. Winner: MacBook Pro

Generations matter when it comes to performance

The MacBook Air uses fifth-generation Broadwell Intel Core i5 and i7 processors rated at 1.6GHz and 2.2GHz, respectively.

The new MacBook Pro, on the other hand, offers up 7th-gen Kaby Lake processors running at 2.3GHz for the Core i5 and 2.5Ghz for the Core i7. Graphics are provided by Intel HD Graphics 6000 in the MacBook Air versus Intel Iris Graphics 640 or 650 in the new MacBook Pro. Simply put, the MacBook Air is seriously outgunned.

While it’s a decent enough performer on its own, and would likely continue working well for most mainstream Mac users, the MacBook Air simply won’t be able to compete with the new MacBook Pro. Maximum RAM is the same on both models at 8GB, but the MacBook Pro offers a 1TB SSD versus the MacBook Air’s limit of 512GB. The only area where the MacBook Air exceeds the new MacBook Pro is battery life.

The MacBook Air has a 54-watt battery versus the roughly equivalent 54.5-watt battery in the new MacBook Pro, but the latter’s more power-efficient Skylake processor doesn’t overcome its power-gulping Retina display. Thus, the MacBook Air is rated at up to 12 hours of battery life versus the new MacBook Pro’s 10 hours. Here, once more, the new MacBook Pro is leaps and bounds ahead.

Unless you need more battery life, that is, in which case the MacBook Air is the better of the two. Winner: MacBook Pro

How’s the keyboard and touchpad?

The new MacBook Pro has received an even larger version of the Force Touch trackpad technology introduced in previous generations. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing compared to the MacBook Air’s standard mechanical multi-touch trackpad is purely subjective, and it’s likely worth a visit to an Apple Store to try them both out side by side.

Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

The MacBook Air also retains the old style of Apple’s island keyboard with chicklet keys, which remains a favorite for many people.

The new MacBook Pro has a second-generation version of the MacBook’s keyboard, offering the same mechanical feel but with more apparent key travel. Again, which is better will likely come down to each user’s preference. The MacBook Pro’s keyboard is a bit polarizing.

Some people love how clicky and tactile it is, some people hate how short the key travel is. Here, there’s no right answer, so it’s really up to your preferences. The MacBook Air features an earlier, less tactile version of the MacBook Pro’s keyboard, but the differences are very subtle.

Winner: It’s up to you

Which is more connected?

The MacBook Air is probably one of the last Apple machines that will offer the old-style SB© USB-A ports, and it’s limited to a single Thunderbolt 2 port. The new MacBook Air, on the other hand, eschews the thicker SB© USB connector in favor of the increasingly in-vogue SB© USB-C ports. The MacBook Pro also offers the newer and faster Thunderbolt 3 connection.

In terms of wireless, both have 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The MacBook Air has Bluetooth 4.0 versus the Bluetooth 4.2 offered by the new MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air does include an SDXC card slot, whereas the new MacBook Pro has none, and so that’s a plus in the MacBook Air’s column.

Overall, which is better connected comes down to your willingness to use dongles to support all of your old SB© USB devices and cables or whether you’re ready to move ahead to SB© USB-C. Also, if you just have to have an SD card slot without using an external adapter, then the MacBook Air is your choice. We have to give a nod to the future here, however, and anoint the more flexible MacBook Pro as the better option going forward.

Winner: MacBook Pro

But the MacBook Air costs less!

Yes, that’s right — the MacBook Air costs significantly less than the new MacBook Pro, even the version we’re comparing with here that doesn’t include the new Touch ID support and OLED Touch Bar. The MacBook Air starts out at £1,000, £300 less than the entry-level MacBook Pro, which comes in at £1,300.

Now, look back over the specs and analysis above. Look at what you get for just an extra £300.

A quicker processor, a much better display, a newer overall design. If you’re on a budget and want a simple, well-performing, thin and light notebook to carry around for basic computing tasks? Then you’d probably be better off buying a Dell XPS 13, but if you want to buy into MacOS, the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers the most bang for your buck.

Winner: MacBook Pro

Final answer? The new Macbook Pro

When we tally up the score using our unscientific methodology, we have to say that the MacBook Air has enjoyed its time in the sun. It was the first truly thin and light PC on the market and arguably cemented thickness and weight as important metrics when selecting a new notebook.

It was a trailblazer, it forged new paths, it was ahead of its time. Pick the platitude. Today, though, it’s just old news, and we’re surprised that Apple hasn’t done away with it completely — but it’s probably on its way out.

The new MacBook Pro is a svelte, futuristic-looking notebook with almost up-to-date components and it maintains that excellent Retina display. It has the new, larger Force Touch trackpad, and a second-gen butterfly mechanical keyboard, so it’s likely to provide an excellent experience in terms of interacting with the machine. And its connectivity options are equally new and future-proof.

In the end, we’re sad to be the ones to say it, but the MacBook Air is no longer a viable choice. Unless you’re really strapped for cash, then you should pick up a new MacBook Pro and let the MacBook Air sidle off into the sunset. The MacBook Pro is the new thin and light MacOS device of choice.

Buy from Apple:

MacBook 13-inch Air MacBook Pro 13-inch

Updated 1/25/18 to reflect the latest hardware.

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