You don’t want fries with that: What artificial intelligence might do for us

There’s no going back. Computers have changed the very fabric of our lives, and having come this far they’re not going to stop changing them any time soon. Visionary human minds are now creating computers with artificial intelligence that will start to do our thinking. Here’s a suggestion as to what that might mean…

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain. The Computer Revolution began in Silicon Valley. The next big thing is going to be the Artificial Intelligence Revolution, and it will begin anywhere where there are inventive minds.

That’s because the birth of the computer age needed the silicon chips, and their makers, that gave the valley its name, but there’s such a need for hardware for the next stage of our computer journey.

It’s getting on for fifty years since Don Hoefler first used the phrase ‘Silicon Valley’ on a series of articles for trade publication Electronic News. In those days all roads led to the Valley – more precisely the Santa Clara Valley at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. And whilst it’s still the home of many of the world’s high-tech companies and thousands of startups, what makes it what it has become is no longer unique to that particular corner of California.

Exploring the boundaries of technology
It’s the bringing together of enormously clever people who want to explore the boundaries of what’s possible with technology, backed by finance and seasoned with entrepreneurial vision.

Daniel Kroening of DiffBlue, also born in the UK, says: “From a technology perspective we are building computer programmes that write other computer programmes and are ultimately able to improve themselves.”

And Antoine Amann, a Cambridge graduate who worked in publishing with the Financial Times has developed Echobox, which has the power to optimise content for social media, claiming to double referrals from Facebook and Twitter without having to do analytics manually, or even curate content.

Amann claims of his AI platform that it is the world’s first artificial intelligence that understands the meaning of content. That may or may not be hyperbole, but if machines really can understand content – and why wouldn’t that be possible – then aren’t we just a short step away from them being affected by it in just the way that it’s hoping humans are?

The thinking computer
And if we’ve given it that ability, it’s surely only a short step to having AI that reacts to what it understands, and learns from it. Imagine; a computer capable of being so moved by the plight of people in some famine-stricken part of the world that it wants to make a donation. Nothing morally wrong in that, you might say, but what if it were to start having a political bias? That’s a different ball game altogether. The thought that computers can understand, think, and react, opens up a whole new debate with moral and ethical dimensions.

Perhaps that’s where we’re going. Amir Husain, CEO of UK startup SparkCognition seems to believe that’s the case. He is quoted as saying: “SparkCognition was founded on the idea that the time has come for machines to think independently, solve problems, and augment human potential. . . I believe that intelligent systems hold tremendous promise for the human race, and may in fact present the only practical avenue to rid us of many of the ills that have plagued us since the dawn of our own consciousness – poverty, hunger, disease, and fear.”

Perhaps he could add obesity to that list. Computers have always come with chips, but what happens when an AI system in a fast food restaurant looks you up and down and says: “You don’t want fries with that…”