AI: The author of the future

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The past 100 years has brought unprecedented change to the world. 1918 saw the end of World War 1 and the start of a remarkable technological evolution. In 100 years, we have gone from the introduction of the wireless (nowadays commonly called a radio) and the telephone, to a world in which artificial intelligence (AI) is writing music and telling jokes.

An argument can be made that 100 years passing will necessitate massive technological innovations and changes, but the period between 1818 and 1918 saw far fewer life-changing inventions and technologies than the following century. In fact, there have been more innovations in the past 50 years than occurred in the past century.

Artificial intelligenceSoftware is a perfect example. Starting out as a tool to allow humans to interact with computers, it has evolved to process speech and language well enough to tell you the weather forecast, and is now enabling true AI. An IBM software program called Project Debater took on two Israeli student debating champions, Zafrir and Noa Ovadia, and was considered more informative than the humans on stage in both debates by the audience. This AI pulls sentences and quotes to support its position from a corpus of hundreds of millions of documents. It also has a framework of pre-built arguments, and even jokes, that it seeks opportunities to deploy. At one point, the system prefaced its response to Zafrir by noting that its blood would boil, if it had blood.

In an interview, Bjorn Schuller, an expert and professor in machine intelligence, said AI may well end up writing better novels than humans, and expects these smart machines to catch up to humans in the next couple of decades. “When it's merely coming to conversational skills and creativity skills … creating new paintings, new poems, creating new solutions, there's probably not much headroom for the humans any more these days. The machines indeed might be able to replace a lot of what we do in these domains. That might include - by the way - us, the researchers and professors, because AI can also find new research topics itself, do them quite thoroughly, and publish about those,” he said.

The last hurdle left for machines is to overcome “reading between the lines”, as machines miss out on the nuances of human irony and sarcasm, according to Schuller. So there's still some time for us, with Schuller predicting that “there's at least a decade or two” until machines are as good as we are at interpreting text, re-writing it, and making it feel enjoyable, fun to read, and informative.

This was highlighted in a recent social media prank, where someone posted a script for an Olive Garden commercial, allegedly written by an artificial intelligence algorithm. The commercial is a trip into the absurd in which patrons enjoy “warm and defeated pasta nachos”, “secret soup”, “Italian citizens”, and “unlimited stick”. The commercial was not written by AI at all. Artificial intelligence currently excels at narrow tasks and can generate cohesive grammar at sentence level, but something like a script is still too complex.

Engineer Janelle Shane took to Twitter to lay out some of the tell-tale giveaways that the script was written by a person pretending to be an AI algorithm. “First of all, neural nets learn by example. If you show it 1 000 hours of video (assuming 120 000 unique 30-sec Olive Garden commercials exist), you’ll get video, not a script with stage directions,” she tweeted. “Notice that this script has the same main characters and scenario the entire way through. An actual neural net’s story wound tend to meander because it forgets what it was doing.”

As Schuller pointed out, this is changing fast. As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, it could be used to create misinformation like convincing (but fake news) articles. We are already seeing people pretending to be an AI algorithm writing a commercial; it’s only a matter of time before someone programs an AI to pretend to be a human writer. Thankfully, AI still has a way to go before this becomes a reality.


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