Microsoft’s CEO lays out his 10 Laws of AI

Image: Satya Nadella
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella lays out his vision for ethical AI research. (Credit: Microsoft)

Taking a page from Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has drawn up six “musts” for the revolution in artificial intelligence that he sees coming, plus four musts for the humans living in the AI age.

Nadella’s deep dive into the philosophical underpinnings of AI research comes as Microsoft is turning its attention toward AI tools with a vigor reminiscent of billionaire co-founder Bill Gates’ pivot to the internet in the mid-1990s. In his own essay, published today online on Slate, Nadella refers not only to Asimov’s laws, but also to Gates’ 1995 “Internet Tidal Wave” memo.

The essay also comes amid a debate over whether AI could pose a “Terminator”-level threat to humanity’s long-term future. Just this week, for example, British physicist Stephen Hawking warned about the rise of an “AI arms race” in autonomous weapons. Over the past month, the White House has been conducting a nation-spanning series of workshops focusing on the promise and potential peril of intelligent machines.

Nadella says humans and machines could work together to address society’s greatest scourges, including disease, ignorance and poverty.

“Doing so, however, requires a bold and ambition approach that goes beyond anything that can be achieved through incremental improvements to current technology,” he writes. “Now is the time for greater coordination and collaboration on AI.”

Get the list of laws on GeekWire.


Stephen Hawking warns of ‘AI arms race’

Image: Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking chats with Larry King. (Credit: Ora.TV)

British physicist Stephen Hawking says the potential threat from artificial intelligence isn’t just a far-off “Terminator”-style nightmare. He’s already pointing to signs that AI is going down the wrong track.

“Governments seem to be engaged in an AI arms race, designing planes and weapons with intelligent technologies,” Hawking told veteran interviewer Larry King. “The funding for projects directly beneficial to the human race, such as improved medical screening, seems a somewhat lower priority.”

It’s not surprising that Hawking is worried about AI – he’s been issuing warning for years. But the concern over an AI arms race adds a short-term spin to the long-term concern.

There’s certainly an AI race going on, spanning a spectrum from Microsoft’s vision of AI-enhanced applications to the self-driving cars that so many companies seem to be working on. Hawking has joined forces with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and thousands of other techies in expressing deep concern about the military side of AI.

In the “Larry King Now” online interview, available via Ora.TV, Hawking acknowledged that AI can bring lots of benefits to humanity. “Imagine algorithms able to quickly assess scientists’ ideas, catch cancer earlier and predict the stock markets,” he said.

But Hawking said AI’s reach will have to be strictly regulated.

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Computer binges on TV to learn human ways

Image: Big Bang Theory
An AI program analyzed this video frame and predicted that these two characters from “The Big Bang Theory” (played by Sara Rue and Johnny Galecki) would kiss. They did. (Credit: Vondrick et al. / MIT)

Researchers have taught a computer to do a better-than-expected job of predicting what characters on TV shows will do, just by forcing the machine to study 600 hours’ worth of YouTube videos.

The experiment could serve as a commentary on the state of research into artificial intelligence, or on the predictability of sitcom plots. It also calls to mind the scenes from countless science-fiction movies where the alien gets up to speed on human culture just by watching TV.

MIT’s Carl Vondrick and his colleagues are due to present the results of their experiment next week at the International Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition in Las Vegas.

The researchers developed predictive-vision software that uses machine learning to anticipate what actions should follow a given set of video frames. They grabbed thousands of videos showing humans greeting each other, and fed those videos into the algorithm.

To test how much the machine was learning about human behavior, the researchers presented the computer with single frames that showed meet-ups between characters on TV sitcoms it had never seen, including “The Big Bang Theory,” “Desperate Housewives” and “The Office.” Then they asked whether the characters would be hugging, kissing, shaking hands or exchanging high-fives one second afterward.

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How AI doctors can save patients’ lives

Image: Project Emerge
An AI-enabled system called Project Emerge helps health-care providers head off medical errors. (Credit: Johns Hopkins Medicine via YouTube)

Someday soon, your physician may be second-guessed by an artificial intelligence program – and you’ll probably be healthier for it, according to Microsoft Research’s Eric Horvitz.

Horvitz, a research fellow and managing director of Microsoft Research’s lab in Redmond, Wash., laid out the statistics to support second-opinion software during today’s White House workshop on how AI can bring social benefits.

The workshop in Washington, D.C., was the second in a series of four sessions aimed at helping the Office of Science and Technology Policy formulate future initiatives on artificial intelligence.

Microsoft Research is pursuing projects in more than 60 areas of computer science, including AI, but Horvitz focused on two projects in particular that brought AI tools to bear on health care challenges.

One project targets medical errors, which Horvitz said are thought to cause more than 400,000 deaths annually in the United States.

“It’s kind of like a city the size of Oakland or Miami going away quietly every year, due to avoidable deaths,” Horvitz said. “It’s the third-leading cause of death in the United States.” (Heart disease and cancer are No. 1 and No. 2.)

Microsoft has been working with partners including the Johns Hopkins Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality to develop software that scans for potential medical errors. Horvitz said such programs can serve as “safety nets” for health care providers.

“You learn to recognize anomalies,” he said. “You learn to recognize acts of omission and commission and flag them.”

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Experts weigh in on the bright side of AI

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Can humans and machines get along? (Credit: Imperial College London)

Experts on artificial intelligence are following up on the first White House workshop on artificial intelligence, presented last month in Seattle, with a session that addresses a central question about the technology: What good can it do for humanity?

Whenever folks talk about AI, the discussion usually turns to the dark side. Will machines surpass us, even rule over us? Researchers point out that although computers can be programmed to outdo unassisted humans in specialized tasks, such as playing the game of Go, artificial general intelligence still lags far behind human capabilities.

But if there’s even a minuscule risk that robot overlords will prevail, as claimed by luminaries such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, why take the chance? At Tuesday’s White House workshop, the second in a series of four, the spotlight focuses on why we should turn to the bright side of AI.

“AI has been successfully applied to societal challenge problems, and it has a great potential to provide tremendous social good in the future,” the Computing Community Consortium’s Helen Wright says in a blog post advancing the session.

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White House brings first AI workshop to UW

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Experts say human intelligence and artificial intelligence are likely to work together in the future, and that will pose a challenge for governments and legal system. (Credit: Christine Daniloff / MIT file)

Intelligent machines won’t be ruling the world anytime soon – but what happens when they turn you down for a loan, crash your car or discriminate against you because of your race or gender?

On one level, the answer is simple: “It depends,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in the issues raised by autonomous vehicles.

But that opens the door to a far more complex legal debate. “It seems to me that ‘My Robot Did It’ is not an excuse,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2.

The rapidly rising challenges that face America’s legal system and policymakers were the focus of today’s first-ever White House public workshop on artificial intelligence, presented at the University of Washington School of Law. For a full afternoon, Smith, Etzioni and other experts debated the options in an auditorium that was filled to capacity.

White House deputy chief technology officer Ed Felten said today’s discussion will feed into an interagency policymaking process that includes a public report, due to be published later this year, and a request for information directed to the public.

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How to train your robot: Treat it like a dog

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A virtual dog has to be taught to move the red bag to the blue room. (Credit: Peng et al. / WSU)

To figure out the best way for a robot to move, designers have turned to snakes,cheetahs, fish and even mermaids for inspiration. But to figure out the best way for a robot to learn, they’re going to the dogs.

A team led by computer scientists at Washington State University’s Intelligent Robot Learning Laboratory set up a robot training program that builds in the kinds of fits and starts that a dog might employ when it’s learning a task from its human master. When the virtual robot is unsure what to do, it slows down and looks for feedback. But once it’s figured out the task, it runs through the job lickety-split.

The “Strategy-Aware Bayesian Learning” model, which was laid out in Singapore last week at the International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi-agent Systems, was developed in anticipation of an age when regular folks rather than programmers would have to teach robots what to do.

“We want everyone to be able to program, but that’s probably not going to happen,” WSU Professor Matthew Taylor said today in a news release. “So we needed to provide a way for everyone to train robots – without programming.”

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Robotic hand learns to become more dexterous

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A human hand makes contact with the University of Washington’s robotic hand. (Credit: UW)

Pianists, surgeons, typists, gamers and baton-twirlers all learn to use their hands more skillfully as they ply their trade, but what about robots? Researchers at the University of Washington say they’ve developed a five-fingered robot hand that’s more capable than ours, and can learn to handle objects better and better without human intervention.

The ADROIT Manipulation Platform draws upon machine learning and real-world feedback to improve its performance, rather than relying on its programmers to specify its every move.

“Such dynamic dexterous manipulation with free objects has never been demonstrated before even in simulation, let along the physical hardware results we have,” Vikash Kumar, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering, told GeekWire in an email. Kumar and his colleagues discuss the project in a paper to be presented May 17 at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

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Robot surgeon does superhuman job on sutures

Image: Robot surgeon at work
Surgeons Azad Shademan and Ryan Decker supervise autonomous bowel surgery performed on a piglet by the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot. (Credit: Axel Krieger)

Researchers have programmed a robot to sew up intestines autonomously, with more precision than the typical human surgeon achieves. Right now, the intestines happen to be inside pigs, but some aspects of the technology could soon be used on humans.

“Within the next couple of years, I expect that as surgical tools become smarter, it will inform and work with surgeons in supporting better outcomes,” Peter Kim, a researcher at the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., told reporters this week.

Kim and his colleagues describe their surgical system – known as the Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot, or STAR – in a paper published online today by Science Translational Medicine.

Surgical robots have been around for a long time, but so far they’ve been used as tools rather than taking on medical tasks on their own. The surgeon typically manipulates the robot’s instruments in real time, in some cases guided by a video feed.

STAR combines a number of technologies that are already in use, including the KUKA robotic arm, and adds a layer of programming that translates near-infrared imagery of the surgical site into a course of action. When the human surgeon presses a button, the STAR robot executes a program to stitch up a break in the intestines.

Kim calls the machine a “very advanced, smart sewing machine.”

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Why robot surgeons will have human overlords

Image: Robot on 'Heartbeat'
A heart patient is prepped for a surgical procedure on an episode of NBC’s “Heartbeat” that features the University of Washington’s Raven robotic technology. (Credit: NBC / Universal Television)

A surgeon peers into a high-definition monitor, studies the ragged edge of a heart valve, and twiddles her fingers in a gizmo-laden glove. Meanwhile, miles away, a robot that looks like a cross between a loom and a torture device reproduces her every delicate move with a pair of tiny pincers, suturing up the damaged heart.

This isn’t reality. This is last week’s episode of NBC’s “Heartbeat” medical drama, featuring a version of the University of Washington’s Raven robo-surgeon that’s been souped up just for show.

The real-life world of robot-assisted surgery may not be as edgy as Hollywood makes it out to be. But it’s here, it’s profitable, and it could soon get a lot edgier.

The market leader is Intuitive Surgical, the maker of da Vinci Surgical Systems. Last week, the Silicon Valley company reported a nearly 17 percent rise in da Vinci procedures worldwide over the past year, and a 41 percent rise in quarterly profit. That boom came even though a single robot costs $2 million – a price tag that’s generated controversy in the health-care community.

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