In a memorable opening scene of the movie Robocop thirty years ago, a prototype security robot fails to reverse an instruction to terminate a target during a demonstration. The board watch in helpless horror as one of their members is eviscerated by a creation of their own making. I was reminded of this scene reading disturbing reports of a driverless car that killed a pedestrian in Arizona in spite of a test driver sitting behind the wheel.
Movies, books and comics often portray intelligent machines as suspicious, hostile and error prone. In this narrative, the lofty aspiration of the visionary who brought the robot into existence is contrasted with a crushing reality of disobedience and disaster. Whether to intentionally inspire or deliberately disturb, news headlines draw our attention only to the most dramatic instances of machine capabilities. The reality is that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are already embedded in our workplaces, our schools and our homes.
You already enjoy the benefits of machine learning when Google Maps lets you know to expect heavy traffic. If it wasn’t for email spam filters driven by machine learning, your email would be inundated with offers of augmentation and beleaguered pleas to transfer money to foreign shores. You can thank (or blame) machine learning for the ranking of posts in your Facebook feed. Digital personal assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, use machine learning to process your verbal request and figure out an appropriate response. When you use a chat application to access technical support, chances are you are speaking to an application who responds to your query with a list of recommendations from a knowledge base. Machine learning is already part of your daily life whether you realise it or not.