The time travel paradox of artificial intelligence

The time travel paradox of artificial intelligence
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Google and Facebook will build indispensable personal assistants. How will this disrupt the future?

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five and J.K.Rowling’s series of Harry Potter novels describe the time travel paradox. Traveling through time changes the future from the point in time where the traveler arrived. The personal assistant that will arrive at some time in the future will change humans from that point in time forward, but in a more impactful way than GPS.

Artificially intelligent personal assistants will be part of our lives

Google and Facebook have recruited the best artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning talent in the world to build personal assistants in small increments.

The personal assistant’s intimate knowledge of users’ likes and dislikes and awareness of situational context could be like Samantha depicted in the movie Her, but without an emotional relationship so users will not fall in love with their assistants. Compared to Samantha, Google and Facebook’s progress is modest, though Google Now and its recently announced sibling Google Home promise a future with a conversational personal assistant that knows the user. When exactly Samantha will arrive is not predictable because researchers have not yet completed all the work to create her.

Likewise, Facebook’s progress in interpreting images and text comments proves that machines can understand the context of a scene and conversations in the comments to a post or dialog with a Messenger Bot. Add camera subsystems, such as Google’s Project Tango, and a few other research projects, such as  Qualcomm’s 3D object detection, and machines will have human-like 3D perception.

Google and Facebook have the data about us to teach a personal assistant with machine learning to be contextually relevant to our daily lives. Neither company has a plan to hatch a Samantha-like personal assistant that is indispensable from their research yet, but it is their goal. The usefulness will increase little by little as AI and machine learning research is applied in increments to consumer products.

The personal assistant will be a trade of personal information

It is not an altruistic endeavor. Both companies want to make their products more relevant by complementing their data troves with the intelligence of the personal assistant to motivate users to spend more time using their products and make ads more relevant, increasing click-throughs. Google demonstrated that it is aware of personal privacy concerns during the announcement of its Home personal assistant, stating that Home would have access to only personal information such as calendars with the user’s explicit permission. It is a fair trade to have Samantha.

How will people use their surplus cognitive capacity

The personal assistance of GPS has become pervasive. Drivers once bought multi-fold maps to study their routes before heading out on a trip and to spot check their progress during the journey. Now drivers use GPS even in familiar circumstances when they already know how to reach their destination because it frees up cognitive capacity.

Artificially intelligent personal assistants will free up even more time. How will people use this cognitive capacity made available by personal assistants that (maybe the pronoun who is more appropriate here) take over the mundane tasks in our lives? We might have to wait 50 years to retrospectively measure the effects of the time travel paradox of AI. But it will change humans. Perhaps the question is better expressed by the narrator of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden:

“A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”

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