How Two Otter Encounters Inspired Me to Change My New AI Book

Last week, I interviewed an AI startup named AISense whose single product, Otter Voice Notes, a cloud-based platform, seems to me to have as many uses as Word does. It records conversations of almost any length between multiple people with uncanny accuracy and speed.

Start with the billion-dollar transcription industry that serves medical procedures, legal testimony and depositions, then move into all forms of education and training, and there’s the foundation for a big business opportunity. Add to that all your business meetings and Zoom video conversations. Take all the time required to turn talk into text, correct the invariable typos and homonyms, delete “um’s” and so on. Eliminate the time and expense of turning spoken words into accurate text, and I think you will see how such technology can change your life.

It turns out there are already 13 AI Speech startups: almost all have technologies in the market and such competitive markets invariably accelerate innovations while keeping prices low. AISense is the apparent leader right now and seems to be well-positioned to maintain that lead. Whether or not it does, users still win because this level of competition usually leads to rapid innovation and refinement. Otter provides users 600 free minutes a month and the platform allows users much longer recording periods, so that you can automatically record 10 hours of conference presentations if you wish.

For me, there was another revelation: Otter.ai changed the actual dynamics of my meeting with its founders. Because I trusted their tech to take notes, I could enjoy a more immersive and authentic face-to-face interaction with co-founders Sam Liang and Yun Fu and JD Lasica, my friend and fellow author, who was also present.

Otter produced an entirely more comprehensive transcript than I ever could have otherwise accomplished, and the tags produced let me find what I needed afterward with great speed. This is AI Augmentation at its best: the humans get to do humanly interactive things, while Otter tirelessly takes notes.

Liang and Fu explained how Otter’s AI can extract conversation summaries with bulleted key points and action items. It will use social graphs to see the relationships between conversation participants and can detect emotions. My talks with the Otter guys have excited me for other, more personal, reasons. They have to do with Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out.

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Does Your Grandpa Want a Robot for a Pal?

robotIt’s a problem that is getting a lot of attention. The world’s population is getting older. If you are under 70 years of age today, AI will likely be involved in how you are cared for. If a child is born into your family today, those who make such predictions say she or he can expect to live 100 years, or longer.

The problem is complicated further by predictions that as many as a billion jobs may disappear, replaced by automation in the workplace. I am researching for a book I plan to write: Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out. I think that the future of humankind may be decided by how business and society address this issue, but for now, let’s just address caring for our elders.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is about to play a huge role in this area–as in so many other areas. For example, Google is developing AI retinal sensors to detect cardiovascular diseases. There will soon be nanochips that swim a patient’s bloodstream hunting down cancer cells and big pharma companies are developing AI-enabled drugs to detect debilitating and fatal diseases. Surgeons are using robotics to perform delicate operations with increased precision and less intrusion.

All of these are medical miracles if you ask me, but miracles have a tendency to create unintended consequences. The United Nations predicts that by the year 2100, the world’s elderly population will rise from 965 million today to about 3.1 billion people:

Who will care for them?

As I continue my research, I have been thinking there will be a great many new jobs created for younger people by the needs of older people. After all, speculation varies on it, but predictions for humans being replaced by Robots, Chatbots, Nanobots, and other AI systems in future versions of today’s workplace vary greatly with at least one futurist predicting a loss of one billion jobs in a population that continues to grow.

Surely, people will always be needed to help people. We have certain qualities that no robotic machine will have in any future scenario for most of this AI-dominated century. The smartest of these machines have not a single iota of common sense. The chatbot that gives you the wrong answer online doesn’t really mean it when it says they are sorry it didn’t work, because it lacks empathy. The faces of future robots may become extremely realistic, but I believe there will remain something mechanical in their eyes when they gaze into those of an elder patient who wishes to be listened to.

Don’t get me wrong. AI can and will do a great deal for senior citizens. In my recent talks on Facebook, several people pointed to the wonderful help that voice-activated AI devices such as Amazon Echo, Siri and Google Assistant can provide and this is bound to get better. But right now these devices really can’t provide much help based on the context of age, mental health or personal history of a user, particularly if dementia accompanies old age.

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Elon Musk, AI and Going Too Far

Elon Musk often reminds me of a quote from TS Eliot, my favorite poet: “Only those who go too far, can possibly find out how far one can go.”

Events of the recent past demonstrate that he often goes too far. But in terms of cars, spaceships, solar panels and Hyperloos, he is likely to be the one who demonstrates how far one can go.

Three cases in point:

1. Robotic Manufacturing. In May 2017, he boasted that the Tesla Model 3 factory would be the most automated in the world with an output of 75,000 vehicles per quarter because of the superior productivity of robots. But at the end of Q1 2018, the factory produced a comparatively limp output of 10,000. The reason, he discovered and declared in an interview was that “humans are underrated.”

Admitting that the miscalculation was his mistake and that people just do some things better than robots, he had Tesla pulled out a major chunk of the automation and replace it with sentient beings. In short, Musk went too far. His company and his reputation are paying a significant price for it, but at the end of the day, the Tesla is probably the most significant improvement in ground transportation since the Model T Ford.

2. SpaceX Rockets. Musk has looked to the future, done some deep thinking about it and it scares the hell out of him. But instead of walking around carrying a sign warning “The End is Near,” he has created an economic opportunity. There may come a time–not as far into the future as any of us would want, that Earth becomes uninhabitable. With that in mind, he created SpaceX which has proven that Silicon Valley technology can expedite space travel faster, better and far more cheaply, with private financing than NASA can do with government backing and traditional contractors. His goal is to build a human colony on Mars, where humans might create an inhabitable environment after destroying the one we have here.

On Sept. 19, he announced one giant leap for humankind when he announced that Yusaku Maezawa has chartered a ride on the SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket. The Japanese billionaire will bring along six-to-eight artists as guests. The flight is scheduled for 2023, but Musk schedules have been known to slip. To me, that is of little matter so much as that Musk, more than any other individual I can think of, is exploring how far we may need to go.

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Autonomous Cars: Sully’s Worried. Maybe You Should Be Too.

There are two long-standing schools for the role of Artificial Intelligence. The first is Autonomy, where AI devices and systems simply replace us. The second is Augmented, where AI serves us as a new toolset: I favor the toolset approach and am writing Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out to explain why you should be concerned as well.

Ultimately, decisions made today between AI augmentation and autonomy will shape the future of the human race. Over the next 10-15 years,  this choice will restructure our relationships with machines, each other, the planet and the universe. Right now some of the smartest technologists in the world, working in some of the best established and most promising tech companies in the world, are inventing ways for AI to do everything from nanobots that will swim through our blood zapping cancer cells to cars that are so autonomous that they are outfitted without steering wheels and with fold-out beds for a good snooze.

You’ve already read about the cars and how great they will be. In the autonomy/augmentation debate, it seems the decision has already been made, robotic cars will prevail. The government, insurance carriers, and even car-makers are just about unanimous that these vehicles are safer and far less polluting. A younger generation seems to prefer self-driving to their parents’ preference for being behind the wheel and in control.

Just about every automaker is moving toward what is called Level 6 Autonomy, which means the driving machines do it all while humans do whatever they please. Volvo is even designing a sleeping car because passengers need to do nothing but get inside the car and tell it a destination.

There are mountains of data arguing the case for automobile autonomy. Millions of miles have been logged by traditional and new automakers with very few mishaps and only two fatal accidents—both blamed on distracted humans who made fatal errors.

Cases like this sound pretty compelling. Data is the protoplasm that makes AI seem, well, intelligent. The stats argue that if we remove humans from the loop, lives will be saved, pollutions will be reduced, existing roadways can be retrofitted to enable more cars to use existing infrastructure at higher speeds and travel time will be reduced.

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AI: Will It Augment or Replace Us?

AI

I first read John Markoff‘s Machines of Loving Grace in 2015 as I started to write The Fourth Transformation, a book about AR and AI in which I predicted that today’s smartphones would be replaced by smart glasses. Markoff’s book gave me reason to pause. Markoff’s book convinced me that the most transformative technology of this new century would be AI and not AR.  It is by no coincidence, that as I start researching Augmenting People: Why AI Should Back Us Up, Not Push Us Out, that I reread Markoff’s extremely well-researched book again.

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