“She’s going to break his heart.”
— Howard Wolowitz, a character on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory” on his friend Raj’s “love affair” with Siri, the female voice created by artificial intelligence on an Apple iPhone.
We can love technology, but technology can’t love us and could break our hearts is the lesson learned from an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” entitled “The Beta Test Initiative” which aired in January 2012.
In the sitcom, Raj Koothrappali is a scientist with a disabling social anxiety disorder that prevents him from talking to women unless he’s drunk.
However, the one woman he can talk to is Siri, an electronic woman that lives in his new Apple iPhone 4S, who answers his every question and even agrees to call him “Sexy” which pretty much sends the lovelorn astrophysicist over the moon with delight.
But Siri is not real. She’s an example of computer generated artificial intelligence commonly known a AI. Amazon’s Alexa is another.
These “women” are capable of an array of tasks which include locating businesses, calling people, controlling smart devices, playing music and many others.
The episode ends with Raj dreaming that he goes to “The Office of Siri” with a dozen roses in hand to meet his true love.
But reality hits when he meets “her” in person.
Of course, she’s gorgeous.
She talks to him, but he can’t talk to her even after she says “if you’d like to make love to me just tell me …”
He chokes on his words with “kchh.” And Siri says she doesn’t understand “kchh.”
Raj wakes up screaming “nooooo …!”
Machines with artificial intelligence can only understand what humans can program them to understand and can only do what humans can program them to do.
Siri and Alexa are perhaps the most easily recognized forms of that, but there are others.
AI is in play when we use an internet search engine and when someone goes online to make a purchase.
To that degree, AI has already taken humans out of the daily equation of getting answers to questions.
For consumers, at the moment, AI has a concierge kind of role.
The various consumer applications can be asked to “find horror movies” on a TV or “turn off the lights” or “turn on the alarm” or “call so and so.”
And we have machines that can fly to other planets on their own with remote human help. And we have robot-assisted surgery and robots in manufacturing.
AI is entering many parts of life.
Will some machine infused with as much human intelligence as can be programmed into it be taking out our tonsils some day, growing our food, tending our children, jack-hammering our roads?
Is there anything they won’t be able to do?
For now, that’s an unanswered question. And it may take time to get that answer.
It has taken time to create Siri, Alexa and other forms of AI programming.
Boston-born scientist John McCarthy, sometimes known as “the father of AI” spent most of his career as a professor of computer science at Stanford University.
It was McCarthy who coined the term “artificial intelligence” in 1955, according to his biography on Stanford’s website.
“John paved the way for the some of the world’s transformative technologies: programming languages, the Internet, the web, and robots,” the biographer said.
McCarthy had thoughts of developing systems that exhibited human-level intelligence as far back as 1948, when he was 21, and Siri was just a twinkle in his eye.
He defined AI this way.
“It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs.”
McCarthy died in October 2011 at the age of 84.
It was the same month Siri came to life in Apple’s iPhone 4S and two months before the TV sitcom character “Raj” bought one at the mall.
The father of AI was alive to see the birth of his groundbreaking electronic child.
And Raj couldn’t have been happier.
“I can’t believe I bought my soulmate at Glendale Galleria,” he tells his Big Bang friends.
There’s more to AI than Siri and Alexa.
An article in forbes.com by R.L. Adams on Jan. 10, 2017, lists 10 uses of artificial intelligence today.
The first two are Siri, which today can assume a male voice with different accents and languages, and Alexa. These two are the most well-known. The third Tesla, a car and with remarkable self-driving capabilities.
But Adams said a lot of AI applications are used by business every day and not noticed by most.
“While companies like Apple, Facebook and Tesla roll out groundbreaking updates and revolutionary changes to how we interact with machine learning technology, many of us are still clueless on just how AI is being used today by businesses both big and small,” Adams wrote.
And Lance Fiondella, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, said AI engineering has gotten a lot of press attention in recent times because of some recent successes.
For example, there’s been great progress in computer vision, in which computers have gotten better at recognizing things visible to humans.
For regular Joes, this ability could make YouTube searches easier.
But it could have more serious applications, even for life and death.
It could identify skin lesions via smartphone photographs and then be able to advise the patient they need to see a doctor, Fiondella said.
The UMass professor does see a day in the future where AI and the robots it controls will replace workers, but many of the jobs those workers do could be the dirty, dangerous and menial jobs that many won’t object to losing.
“Ideally, it could eliminate a lot of jobs people don’t want to do,” he said. “But, hopefully, it would lead to a more positive future.”
A more positive future could be attained by freeing workers to pursue other passions and better jobs, he said. But that will take more work.
“We’ll need additional science to put people back to work,” Fiondella said.
He said it’s possible AI mechanisms will be used to re-train people for new jobs.
While there’s nothing on the horizon, he even acknowledged a suggestion from a reporter that AI could someday take the role of a college professor. Of course, that professor could then pursue research.
Locally, only one of three employers responded to a Sun Chronicle request for information on how AI is affecting them.
Sensata did not respond. Sturdy Memorial Hospital said no one could be found to speak on the subject.
But Bill Larson of Larson Tool and Stamping said the kind of automation his business uses is not currently affected by AI.
But that could be a different story later on.
“Like most things, I’m sure there will be applications in the future,” he said.
Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center poll in 2014 showed that experts are divided on how much love we’ll be giving AI advances in the times to come.
All told 1,896 experts were asked,“will networked, automated, artificial intelligence applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?”
About half, 48 percent, said “yes.” The other 52 percent said “no.”
But on one point they agreed.
“In the end, a number of these experts took pains to note that none of these potential outcomes — from the most utopian to the most dystopian — are etched in stone,” Aaron Smith, author the report, said.
“Although technological advancement often seems to take on a mind of its own, humans are in control of the political, social and economic systems that will ultimately determine whether the coming wave of technological change has a positive or negative impact on jobs and employment.”
Meanwhile, some colleges like Massachusetts Institute of Technology are rolling out new education systems to better incorporate AI into student life and not just for budding scientists, but for all.
According to a 2018 New York Times article by Steve Lohr, MIT is establishing a curriculum to “bake” computing into the courses in the liberal arts.
The goal is “to bring AI tools those fields” and, of course, to the day-to-day world of all of us.
It’s so new that administrators have yet to determine what the new degrees will be called.
The $1 billion effort begins in the fall of 2020 and a new building to house the program is slated to open in 2022.
Siri in some sense broke Raj’s heart, but it remains to be seen what she and all her artificial intelligence offspring, will do to the rest of us.
Some things we may love, some we may not, but one thing is sure, none of them will love us back.