If you are looking for an answer to the question What is Artificial Intelligence? and you only have a minute, then here's the definition the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence offers on its home page: "the scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying thought and intelligent behavior and their embodiment in machines."
However, if you are fortunate enough to have more than a minute, then please get ready to embark upon an exciting journey exploring AI (but beware, it could last a lifetime) …
Politics are in the air, like that ominous reddish glow suffocating much of the West in recent weeks on account of all those tragic wild fires. This coming week we get our first presidential debate. A chance for Donald Trump and Joe Biden to shake hands and have a respectful, reasoned exchange of views on the future of the unfairly maligned Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act; the need to reform the Stored Communications Act; the wisdom of replicating Europe's General Data Privacy Regulation; the merits of taking antitrust action against Google for its manipulation of search results or against Amazon for its treatment of third-party sellers on its platform. Maybe we will even see the candidates reflect humbly on humanity's place in the universe, in light of the breaking news from Venus. The debate will probably be all tense, no future--maybe not as heated as a debate between 2016 Lindsey Graham and 2020 Lindsey Graham, but close.
I reach out to you still contemplating the profundity of what Mark Zuckerberg told his congressional inquisitors on Wednesday: "The space of people connecting with other people is a very large space." So large, it even includes newsletters in your inbox. Three clear winners and one loser emerged from Wednesday's Big Tech hearing in Washington. The winners were Rep. Pramila Jayapal, our new "eviscerator in chief"; Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai's future career as an anger-management therapist; and Tim Wu. When the going gets tough in coming weeks, I will close my eyes and picture the Google CEO soothingly saying "congressman" with infinite patience, as he did at the beginning of all his answers. The more irate the congressional questioner, the more patient, measured, and empathetic his "congressman" sounded.
This past week, we witnessed wrenching debates over speech--involving protesters on the street, our Twitterer-in-chief, and aspiring New York Times op-ed writers. Some of the best tools we have to inspire and contextualize social movements are books and film, and in the next week, we will host conversations with some of the most interesting leaders in the book industry and Hollywood. We hope you'll join us: After a man is injured in a forklift accident, he takes on a lucrative offer to "raise" a robot. After a jarring first impression (imagine a toddler in the body of a massive robot), the relationship makes the protagonist rethink much of his life. In the response essay, John Frank Weaver, author of Robots Are People Too warns about the manipulative capabilities of all-too-human robots: "A company that records all your interactions raising a child--the stress, the exhaustion, the jubilation, the love--has a treasure trove of information about what makes you tick as a person, even when the child is a robot."
We love Money Heist, too, but it's probably time for a break from Netflix. So, join us for our upcoming web events on bats' (undeserved?) Wednesday, May 27, 4 p.m. Eastern: Are Bats Really to Blame for the COVID-19 Pandemic? Tuesday, June 2, 4 p.m. Eastern: Free Speech Project: Should We Think Twice Before Limiting Political Advocacy? Earlier this month, Singapore unveiled Spot, a social distancing-enforcing robotic dog that is now "patrolling" a park.
From here on Earth to up in space, the next two weeks of our Social-Distancing Socials are covering it all. Thursday, May 21: Will We Ever Fly Again? This pandemic is making armchair epidemiologists out of us all. Every morning we roll out of bed to yet another science-adjacent article shared by everyone and their great-aunt. But premature reporting on scientific studies can threaten public health.
This is especially true of the tech sector, where some analysts liken the U.S. and China's heavy strategic investments in cybersecurity, quantum computing, 5G, and artificial intelligence to a digital arms race, one that, because of China's long-term positioning and access to vast amounts of data to train on, that country will win. But Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that when it comes to the world-shifting technology of artificial intelligence, the narrative isn't so simple. She explains why she is putting her money on the United States. Great power conflict isn't the only thing we at Future Tense have been fretting about this week. We've also been looking at digital privacy.
Last week, we published "Mpendulo: The Answer," the latest installment of our Future Tense Fiction series. In it, author Nosipho Dumisa imagines what life and humanity might mean to a "synthetic person"--in this fictional world, someone born out of artificially created stem cells--and what their experience of their own humanity might be like while living in a society fraught with discrimination. In a response essay to the story, tech journalist Sarah Elizabeth Richards looks at the major global debates we've already seen over real advances in reproductive technology, and what public fears over things like "playing God" with in vitro fertilization or "designer babies" with progress in genetics say about how we think about being human. Elsewhere on Future Tense, we've been exploring the wild world of tech enforcement. Charles Duan argues that the move to change the rules for patenting laws of nature seems eerily similar to a related attempt to do so in 1923.
While voice-enabled assistants like Siri and Alexa have made the lives of millions of Americans a little easier, the software systems they run on are not great at accommodating a particular group of users: those with speech disabilities and impairments. This means that the "7.5 million people" who "have trouble using their voice" and the "more than 3 million people" who stutter in the U.S. are largely being left out of the voice-assistant revolution. This lack of accessibility becomes even more glaring when you consider that many individuals with speech disabilities also have limited mobility and motor skills, meaning they might benefit more from such digital assistants. Moira Corcoran reports on the smaller tech companies and startups that have started to work on software that's more inclusive of all speech, and what larger firms like Amazon and Microsoft have to say about making more individualized and accessible technologies. Elsewhere on Slate, we've been focusing on the politics of social media.
While your iPhone or Amazon Echo may or may not actually be compromised (both the U.S. government and the companies alleged to have been targeted have vehemently denied the story, which was first reported by Bloomberg), the possibility of such foreign intrusion into our internet of things devices would have massive implications for our national security and technology sectors. Elsewhere on Slate, we've been covering other stories about data security. Sharon Bradford Franklin wrote about a newly proposed law in Australia that could give U.S. law enforcement backdoor access to encrypted data and communications. Josephine Wolff argued that Google actually did a good job disclosing and handling a data vulnerability it found in Google Plus. And Chris Iovenko described how renewed fears over election hacking ahead of the 2018 midterms has experts advocating for a return to paper ballots.
As a millennial, I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of existential dread. But I do find the idea that we might be able to "future-proof" our species--by, say, genetically engineering a smarter human population--somewhat reassuring. Though, as any science-fiction story centered around the idea of creating a "better" human race can tell us, there are innumerable potential pitfalls. Phil Torres describes some of these radical, real-life plans intended to save humanity from future disaster--and their potential for unintended consequences. Elsewhere on Future Tense, we've been covering both public and private surveillance.