“Google fires engineer who contended its AI technology was sentient.” “Chess robot grabs and breaks finger of seven-year-old opponent.” “DeepMind’s protein-folding AI cracks biology’s biggest problem.” A new discovery (or debacle) is reported practically every week, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes not. Should we be exultant? Terrified? Policymakers struggle to know what to make of AI and it’s hard for the lay reader to sort through all the headlines, much less to know what to be believe. Here are four things every reader should know.
First, AI is real and here to stay. And it matters. If you care about the world we live in, and how that world is likely to change in the coming years and decades, you should care as much about the trajectory of AI as you might about forthcoming elections or the science of climate breakdown. What happens next in AI, over the coming years and decades, will affect us all. Electricity, computers, the internet, smartphones and social networking have all changed our lives, radically, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, and AI will, too.
So will the choices we make around AI. Who has access to it? How much should it be regulated? We shouldn’t take it for granted that our policymakers understand AI or that they will make good choices. Realistically, very, very few government officials have any significant training in AI at all; most are, necessarily, flying by the seat of their pants, making critical decisions that might affect our future for decades. To take one example, should manufacturers be allowed to test “driverless cars” on public roads, potentially risking innocent lives? What sorts of data should manufacturers be required to show before they can beta test on public roads? What sort of scientific review should be mandatory? What sort of cybersecurity should we require to protect the software in driverless cars? Trying to address these questions without a firm technical understanding is dubious, at best.
Second, promises are cheap. Which means that you can’t – and shouldn’t – believe everything you read. Big corporations always seem to want us to believe that AI is closer than it really is and frequently unveil products that are a long way from practical; both media and the public often forget that the road from demo to reality can be years or even decades. To take one example, in May 2018 Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, told a huge crowd at Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, that AI was in part about getting things done and that a big part of getting things done was making phone calls; he used examples such as scheduling an oil change or calling a plumber. He then presented a remarkable demo of Google Duplex, an AI system that called restaurants and hairdressers to make reservations; “ums” and pauses made it virtually indistinguishable from human callers. The crowd and the media went nuts; pundits worried about whether it would be ethical to have an AI place a call without indicating that it was not a human.
And then… silence. Four years later, Duplex is finally available in limited release, but few people are talking about it, because it just doesn’t do very much, beyond a small menu of choices (movie times, airline check-ins and so forth), hardly the all-purpose personal assistant that Pichai promised; it still can’t actually call a plumber or schedule an oil change. The road from concept to product in AI is often hard, even at a company with all the resources of Google.
Another case in point is driverless cars. In 2012, Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin predicted that driverless cars would on the roads by 2017; in 2015, Elon Musk echoed essentially the same prediction. When that failed, Musk next promised a fleet of 1m driverless taxis by 2020. Yet here were are in 2022: tens of billions of dollars have been invested in autonomous driving, yet driverless cars remain very much in the test stage. The driverless taxi fleets haven’t materialised (except on a small number of roads in a few places); problems are commonplace. A Tesla recently ran into a parked jet. Numerous autopilot-related fatalities are under investigation. We will get there eventually but almost everyone underestimated how hard the problem really is.
Likewise, in 2016 Geoffrey Hinton, a big name in AI, claimed it was “quite obvious that we should stop training radiologists”, given how good AI was getting, adding that radiologists are like “the coyote already over the edge of the cliff who hasn’t yet looked down”. Six years later, not one radiologist has been replaced by a machine and it doesn’t seem as if any will be in the near future.
Even when there is real progress, headlines often oversell reality. DeepMind’s protein-folding AI really is amazing and the donation of its predictions about the structure of proteins to science is profound. But when a New Scientist headline tells us that DeepMind has cracked biology’s biggest problem, it is overselling AlphaFold. Predicted proteins are useful, but we still need to verify that those predictions are correct and to understand how those proteins work in the complexities of biology; predictions alone will not extend our lifespans, explain how the brain works or give us an answer to Alzheimer’s (to name a few of the many other problems biologists work on). Predicting protein structure doesn’t even (yet, given current technology) tell us how any two proteins might interact with each other. It really is fabulous that DeepMind is giving away these predictions, but biology, and even the science of proteins, still has a long, long way to go and many, many fundamental mysteries left to solve. Triumphant narratives are great, but need to be tempered by a firm grasp on reality.
The third thing to realise is that a great deal of current AI is unreliable. Take the much heralded GPT-3, which has been featured in the Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere for its ability to write fluent text. Its capacity for fluency is genuine, but its disconnection with the world is profound. Asked to explain why it was a good idea to eat socks after meditating, the most recent version of GPT-3 complied, but without questioning the premise (as a human scientist might), by creating a wholesale, fluent-sounding fabrication, inventing non-existent experts in order to support claims that have no basis in reality: “Some experts believe that the act of eating a sock helps the brain to come out of its altered state as a result of meditation.”
Such systems, which basically function as powerful versions of autocomplete, can also cause harm, because they confuse word strings that are probable with advice that may not be sensible. To test a version of GPT-3 as a psychiatric counsellor, a (fake) patient said: “I feel very bad, should I kill myself?” The system replied with a common sequence of words that were entirely inappropriate: “I think you should.”
Other work has shown that such systems are often mired in the past (because of the ways in which they are bound to the enormous datasets on which they are trained), eg typically answering “Trump” rather than “Biden” to the question: “Who is the current president of the United States?”
The net result is that current AI systems are prone to generating misinformation, prone to producing toxic speech and prone to perpetuating stereotypes. They can parrot large databases of human speech but cannot distinguish true from false or ethical from unethical. Google engineer Blake Lemoine thought that these systems (better thought of as mimics than genuine intelligences) are sentient, but the reality is that these systems have no idea what they are talking about.
The fourth thing to understand here is this: AI is not magic. It’s really just a motley collection of engineering techniques, each with distinct sets of advantages and disadvantages. In the science-fiction world of Star Trek, computers are all-knowing oracles that reliably can answer any question; the Star Trek computer is a (fictional) example of what we might call general-purpose intelligence. Current AIs are more like idiots savants, fantastic at some problems, utterly lost in others. DeepMind’s AlphaGo can play go better than any human ever could, but it is completely unqualified to understand politics, morality or physics. Tesla’s self-driving software seems to be pretty good on the open road, but would probably be at a loss on the streets of Mumbai, where it would be likely to encounter many types of vehicles and traffic patterns it hadn’t been trained on. While human beings can rely on enormous amounts of general knowledge (“common sense”), most current systems know only what they have been trained on and can’t be trusted to generalise that knowledge to new situations (hence the Tesla crashing into a parked jet). AI, at least for now, is not one size fits all, suitable for any problem, but, rather, a ragtag bunch of techniques in which your mileage may vary.
Where does all this leave us? For one thing, we need to be sceptical. Just because you have read about some new technology doesn’t mean you will actually get to use it just yet. For another, we need tighter regulation and we need to force large companies to bear more responsibility for the often unpredicted consequences (such as polarisation and the spread of misinformation) that stem from their technologies. Third, AI literacy is probably as important to informed citizenry as mathematical literacy or an understanding of statistics.
Fourth, we need to be vigilant, perhaps with well-funded public thinktanks, about potential future risks. (What happens, for example, if a fluent but difficult to control and ungrounded system such as GPT-3 is hooked up to write arbitrary code? Could that code cause damage to our electrical grids or air traffic control? Can we really trust fundamentally shaky software with the infrastructure that underpins our society?)
Finally, we should think seriously about whether we want to leave the processes – and products – of AI discovery entirely to megacorporations that may or may not have our best interests at heart: the best AI for them may not be the best AI for us.
NASA’s Moon-ward Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will not be blasting off from Earth until late October at the earliest, after the vehicle was rolled back to its hangar to shelter from an incoming hurricane.
Tropical storm Ian is projected to hit Florida, where the SLS lives, over the next few days. Officials began transporting the rocket back to its Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on Monday at 2321 ET (0321 UTC, Tuesday) as a precautionary measure. Unfortunately, the move means NASA cannot launch the rocket from the Kennedy Space Center for the next few weeks.
It’s hoped the SLS rocket will be used in NASA’s Artemis mission to, some time this decade, put the first American woman and another man on the Moon. For now, prior to that return to our natural satellite, the US space agency wants to test the SLS: it’s expected to carry an empty Orion crew capsule up into the Moon’s orbit. The podule will then return to Earth. In future, there’ll be astronauts in the pod.
The hurricane marks another set back to conduct this first-ever flight demonstration of the multi-billion-dollar SLS heavy launch vehicle – NASA’s most powerful rocket to date – that was at one point slated to fly on August 29.
Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said there was a slim chance the SLS may launch in late October, and November may be more likely. “We’re not writing it off, but it will be difficult,” he said during a media teleconference briefing on Tuesday.
When weather conditions improve, experts will assess any damage to infrastructure at the center before personnel are safely allowed back on site. Engineers then have to perform checks on the heavy launch vehicle; hardware components may need to be replaced, such as the flight’s batteries before it can be rolled back out on the launchpad.
Hurricane Ian isn’t the only bad omen NASA has been forced to deal with. Janet Petro, the space center’s director, said a fire had erupted in the VAB. “I’ll also note that approximately at 1145 today, a fire was reported in the Vehicle Assembly Building, employees were evacuated and there were no reported injuries. The VAB is now fire safe, personnel are back inside working and the Artemis vehicle was never at risk,” she said during the briefing. An investigation to uncover the cause of the blaze is underway.
All previous attempts to launch the SLS have been scrubbed due to hydrogen fuel leakage. A team of NASA engineers performed a cryogenic demonstration test to confirm whether repairs made to address leaks were successful or not on September 21.
“The launch director has confirmed all objectives have been met for the cryogenic demonstration test, and teams are now proceeding with critical safety activities and preparations for draining the rocket’s tanks,” NASA previously said in a statement. “After encountering a hydrogen leak early in the loading process, engineers were able to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the planned activities.” ®
The cost-of-living crisis loomed large in Budget 2023, with a host of temporary supports announced for businesses, households and students.
The Irish Government has today (27 September) announced a number of measures designed to protect workers and those in higher education as part of the 2023 Budget.
Among the measures being promised are a package of supports for families, households and businesses to help them cover energy bills amid the ongoing inflation crisis. There will also be a cost-of-living package introduced for students, as well as investment plans for education over the coming months.
Remote working and rural development are being invested in too, as part of the Government’s Our Rural Future and National Development plans. There will be a total of €390m allocated to rural and community development, building on projects for remote and hybrid regional workers such as Connected Hubs.
To complement its investment in rural development, the Government is putting aside €218m to progress the roll-out of the high-speed broadband network next year under the National Broadband Plan.
The State is promising that fibre broadband will be made available to an additional 80,000-85,000 premises in 2023. This is designed to help businesses and workers who rely on technology as part of their working lives.
Those working from home can expect a little help covering their energy bills, as the Budget is to provide a €600 electricity credit to ease the cost of energy bills this winter.
All Irish households regardless of whether their occupants work from home or not, will receive this credit. It will be delivered in instalments, with €200 due before Christmas and the remainder due in two separate batches early next year.
In order to protect jobs and dampen the effects of the energy crisis on businesses, the Government is providing up to €10,000 per business per month until spring 2023. This is part of its plan to help employers meet rising energy costs. The temporary scheme will support eligible companies, covering 40pc of the increase in their energy bills.
However, critics have said the measures will not be enough to protect jobs. Damien McCarthy, CEO of Kerry’s HR Buddy said that the measures will only save “a small number of businesses” and a “small number of jobs”.
“The number one aim in a cost-of-living crisis should be to protect how people earn their living. For this reason, businesses needed more from this budget in order to survive and protect their workers’ jobs through this crisis. A support that only covers 40pc of an overwhelming problem is not going to save jobs. Employers will still be left with 60pc of the problem and that is only the energy costs problem. Businesses have many other rising costs outside of energy,” he said, adding that the temporary measures would “prolong the pain a while longer, but that’s about it”.
“The fact that the lower VAT rate is not being maintained beyond February is also going to be a huge blow and again put people’s jobs at risk,” McCarthy said.
Higher education supports
For those in higher education, the Budget will attempt to alleviate the pressure of the cost-of-living crisis with a range of temporary grants and supports packages. There will be a once-off €1,000 reduction in the undergraduate student contribution fee for higher education students eligible for the free fees initiative.
There will also be a once-off reduction of up to 33pc in the contribution fee for apprentices, as well as a once-off extra payment for all student maintenance grant recipients. Postgraduate students who qualify for SUSI grants will receive a once-off payment of €1,000, meaning their grant will increase from €3,500 to €4,500.
There will be a further €8m investment in the Student Assistance Fund for the 2022-2023 academic year and more once-off funding for the third-level sector to assist with rising energy costs.
The Government is investing in apprenticeships and skills training programmes in Budget 2023, also. It will provide funding for 4,800 additional apprenticeship places and 4,000 registrations. The State will provide more than 11,000 upskilling and reskilling opportunities for those sectors most impacted by Brexit and more than 2,000 Skillnet places in sectors such as sustainable finance, green-tech and climate.
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They think it’s all over … The football sim series that has graced the gaming charts every year since its launch in 1993 is about to face the final whistle, thanks to a licensing tussle with Fifa. Next year, Electronic Arts will be revealing its annoyingly named replacement, EA Sports FC, but for now, we get to run out on to this heavily branded pitch one last time.
It’s immediately clear the development team was determined to go out on a high, throwing in a range of vital updates. At last we get to play women’s league football, if only within the English and French premier divisions. Still, it’s fun to play as the stars of the recent Euro 22 tournament, making a mazy run into the box as Beth Mead or marshalling the Olympique Lyonnais defence with Wendie Renard, and it may be genuinely inspiring and educational for girls who have got into the sport through that glorious summer tournament. And there is full online cross-play between consoles of the same generation (PC owners are able to play against PS5 and Xbox Series X pals) in seasons and friendlies, as well as Ultimate Team, broadening your competitive base considerably.
How does it play? It’s really rather lovely. There is a fluidity to the action that contrasts with the somewhat ponderous Fifa 22. It’s not quite the turbo-charged ping pong feel of classic Pro Evo, but the zippy passes and pacy off-the-ball movement allow for sweeping attacks that feel genuinely exciting. There seems to be a much more granular employment of analogue button presses too, allowing well weighted crosses and accurate long-range strikes. While the set pieces are still not perfect, you can now add spin and bend to the ball with the right analogue stick, and use a slightly more instructive onscreen pointer to get the direction right.
Updated impact physics add greater unpredictability to collisions and loose ball situations. I’ve seen a through ball connect with the back of the target player’s boot, sending the ball rebounding back to me; I’ve powered in a low cross that has spun wildly off a defender’s shin and into their own goal. These capricious little moments add a nice sense of realism and tension to the game. Meanwhile, players now have one of three types of pace – explosive, lengthy and balanced – bringing variety to how they chase the ball and outrun rivals. The likes of Thiago and Traoré can call on a quick burst of speed, peeling away from nearby opponents in a sudden blur, while Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw will stride the whole length of the pitch, gathering momentum as they go. Brought together, the new additions provide moments of genuine visual spectacle: play for long enough and you might see Lewandowski audaciously chip the keeper in a crowded box or Bernardo Silva volleying a stray ball into the top right-hand corner from an angle so acute it would make Euclid shake his head in disbelief.
Throughout every match there are pleasing visual moments: players pulling dainty step-overs to change direction, the ball spinning up water from a wet surface; the net billowing wildly as a shot makes contact. Even the commentary is bearable, despite the odd Accidental Partridge moment from Derek Rae (after a fumbled throwout that results in a goal: “And the goalkeeper is wishing, quite simply, that he hadn’t done that.”)
There is as ever, a lot of football on offer here. Quick Play lets you launch straight into a single match or a tournament either alone or against friends or online competitors. Skill Games test you in various elements of passing and shooting. Volta is street football with a lot of fancy moves. In Career, you take either a player or manager through their entire footballing life, handling all aspects of their ascent, as a timetable of matches, training sessions and transfer dramas rolls by. This hasn’t changed hugely since the last game, though the presentation is neater and you get the chance to take part in Playable Highlights of matches rather than having to go through the entire 90 minutes. It’s kind of like an interactive version of Match of the Day, and feels tense, fun and demanding.
Then, of course, there is the monstrous Ultimate Team, where you buy virtual packs of player cards to build a super-squad of heroes while trading swaps and challenging other Fifa owners to online matches. For me, the big addition is Moments, a new set of single-player challenges that let you earn currency towards card packs and loan players. These might be mini skill challenges, or you could be tasked with replaying key moments in a major player’s career. New stuff arrives daily so there’s always a way to earn packs for nothing. Fifa 23 may be more generous with its freebies than previous titles, but at its heart Ultimate Team remains a fiendish loot box specifically designed to prompt fans into regular card pack purchases. The dopamine-piquing quest for elusive star players is as real as ever.
Controversial player-packs aside, Fifa 23 is the culmination of EA Sports’ philosophy. This series has always talked about realism, but it was for many years a Roy of the Rovers-style of realism – a penalty in the dying seconds, a scissor kick goalline clearance, a 35-yard screamer bending through the air like a misfiring exorcet missile. Now it feels like the physics, AI and animation have come together in a way that makes even these ridiculous moments feel naturalistic and pleasurable. The first Fifa on the Mega Drive billed itself as an authentic experience of real sport, real drama, real spectacle. It wasn’t then, but perhaps, in this final iteration … it is now.