HardCopy Issue 70

In February 2009, in an effort to demonstrate exactly how far we are willing to obey a seductive voice emanating from a plastic box, the driver of a 50-foot articulated lorry wedged his vehicle so thoroughly into a hair-pin bend in the tiny Cotswold village of Syde that it took five days to extricate. In the light of this and other such examples, I am heartened by the news that Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM have announced the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society in order to look into the ethical and societal implications of such technologies.

Many of these implications stem from the lack of human involvement in the decisions that such technologies are increasingly making. Driverless cars are almost upon us, and by most accounts orders of magnitude safer than human drivers, particularly in cities where they can communicate with each other to better understand the dangers ahead. However, on 7 May this year a Model S Tesla in driverless mode smashed at high speed into an 18-wheel truck and trailer, killing the ‘driver’ instantly. It looks as though the car was unable to distinguish the white truck and trailer against the bright Florida sky behind, something that most human drivers would be able to do ‘without thinking’. It is this that makes such accidents seem ‘inhuman’.


Or there’s the customer who rings up wondering why the insurance premium you quoted him is twice that of his neighbour, whose circumstances appear pretty much identical. You have no idea because you have no way of understanding how the algorithm that your company uses arrived at that decision, and neither does anyone else. Does the customer have a right to be told? In other words, does the software have to provide some sort of audit trail? Maybe, but in the meatime, companies are understandably reluctant to divulge their use of such things.

AI is already with us and, as our cover features make clear, already capable of extraordinary feats. However it’s only too easy to anthropomorphise. It is conceivable that, some time in the not too distant future, some sort of conscious awareness may prove to be the most logical way for such machines to manage and comprehend the world in which they find themselves. However that is a long way from the establishment of a conscience, whatever that may be, and even then it seems unlikely that an intelligence made of silicon and metal will have any understanding of emotions or feelings, or anything resembling empathy for the strange organic creatures whose lives they will, by then, dominate. While there is an obvious agenda to promote their shiny new services, the coming together of these companies at such an early stage does at least suggest they accept a degree of responsibility.

Articles for this issue

Silicon brainpower

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Simon Bisson

Artificial Intelligence is the new frontier for software development. Simon Bisson checks out the state of the art.

Ready for business

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Tim Anderson

Integrating the Apple Macintosh into a Windows network need not cause headaches, as Tim Anderson discovers.

Microsoft Cognitive Services

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Mary Branscombe

Microsoft has bundled its AI services into a set of APIs known as Microsoft Cognitive Services.

Stay Safe

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Kay Ewbank

We investigate the new landscape of security threats and find out what you can do to protect yourself.

Inside Data 70

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Graham Keitch

Oracle Mobile Cloud Service can help you integrate mobile devices into your business systems, as Graham Keitch reports.

Straight talking 70

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson reports back from Microsoft’s Ignite event, and tells us why Windows Server 2016 is still relevant to software developers.

And another thing 70

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball ponders the full implications of AI, and what companies need to do if they are to reassure the end-user.

Short cuts 70

Published: November 4, 2016 | Author: Paul Stephens

Paul Stephens takes a sideways look at IT in this month’s Special Hoax Issue