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Ethics: the heart of AI

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are more than trendy or futuristic topics – they are real computing advances that are playing out in homes and businesses today, writes ZOAIB HOOSEN, Managing Director, Microsoft.

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In simple terms, AI is a machine’s ability to reason, and make decisions based on that reasoning, in similar ways to human beings. AI systems learn and evolve over time, so in theory AI can improve itself; the software becomes the software developer.

This creates the potential for exponential gains in analytical and automated processes through AI. Because of this we stand at a critical juncture in the AI journey – a moment in time where we get to define not just what AI can do, but how it does it.

Boosting productivity and unlocking growth

As it goes mainstream – thanks to the cloud, deep learning, and big data – AI will boost productivity and unlock economic growth. It will transform the workplace, and change the shape, look and feel of many industries including health, transport, manufacturing, and more.  But for some, the rise of AI conjures images from the Terminator films or WestWorld TV series. In these stories, humans are at the mercy of these faster, stronger, smarter systems with no ethical hang-ups. These narratives are clear on the problem with AI as they imagine it: no humanity, no heart.

Exploring ethics within capabilities

The ethics of AI goes beyond just regulation and legislation. It’s fundamentally about creating an operating framework that limits and directs the priorities of an AI system.

A real-world example is how one might program a driverless motor vehicle to treat an imminent crash. Should the system act to save its own passenger or should it prioritise the life or safety of a pedestrian? We need to know where we stand on these kinds of issues, to tell learning, thinking machines how they should handle them.  If AI can give us natural language interaction, what are the rules we put in place to manage its responses, or to ensure it doesn’t discriminate against non-native English speakers, for example?  If an AI business analytics system can unlock new sales techniques or customer journeys, are these ethical and fair for customers? What does the system do with the private and personal data it collects before, during and after these interactions?

There is a myriad of concerns at play once you scratch beneath the surface.  At Microsoft we take this responsibility extremely seriously. In fact, one of our three core pillars in this field is: “developing a trusted approach so that AI is developed and deployed in a responsible manner”. This relates directly to the principles of fairness, accountability, transparency and ethics (or FATE) that guide us in ensuring our AI systems are fair, reliable and sage, inclusive, transparent and accountable, and private and secure.

Of course, principles are only as good as the processes that flow from these. In “inclusivity” for example, we believe that to achieve AI that is inclusive, we must nurture inclusivity and diversity in the teams creating the systems – and that the output is just as inclusive. These are the kind of concerns that our internal advisory committee examines, to help ensure our products adhere to these principles.

The bigger picture

We must also be aware that we are not the only player in the game – that AI advances will happen across companies, NGOs and countries. This is where the role of leadership, and the guidance of community, will be critical. We are an active participant in AI-related forums and organisations, such as the Partnership on AI, for this exact reason – and we encourage all AI players to get involved and help us develop the best practices for AI.

Our approach to AI is grounded in, and consistent with, our company mission to help every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more.

If we remain true to this – as we always strive to be – then we must also consider how to mitigate any of the potential downsides that might result from technological advancement. One source of fear for many, is the idea that AI will change our workplaces and – in certain cases – eliminate jobs. Mitigating this will necessitate nurturing new skills and preparing the workforce (and those who will soon join it) for the future of work.  The transformative power of AI will also mean more regulation from governments across the globe – and across the progressive-conservative spectrum. This will bring private and public sectors into closer collaboration, so AI providers must be prepared to engage, to train, to advocate, and to listen, as we move towards a consensus on the values that we inculcate into AI systems.

Fear not – we’ve found the sweet spot

Some people will always fear the unknown, and others will always stride forward in pursuit of progress. The sweet spot lies between them – in the power of AI to unlock creativity, potential and insight, while still behaving in an ethical and responsible manner.  Put aside the scary chapters of a science fiction future for a moment. There is another icon of pop culture that applies – Mary Shelley’s classic tale of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster. In Frankenstein, the doctor is driven by ambition and ego, to create a being made up of parts, reanimated into life. But the doctor is horrified by the creature he creates and abandons it rather than guiding it and helping it into this new life it finds itself in – ultimately leading to deadly consequences.

The spectre of that ghoulish creature looms large in our minds, but – as the novel so wonderfully conveys – the real monster in Frankenstein is the doctor, the flawed man who creates a life without consideration of the chain of events he has set in motion. Similarly, those of us working in AI today need to be sure that we give our own “creation” firm rules and guidelines for operating in the world.

To avoid becoming the Doctor-monster of Shelley’s nightmare, we need to put the heart into the machine.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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