AI and Algorithms Are Not That Smart and Could be Dangerous without Supervision

Little Rock Artificial intelligence or AI, as people are starting to call it fairly routinely, and the algorithms that crowd around us everywhere, are muscling into every part of our lives in ways we don’t clearly understand, but that increasingly demand our attention. We are making a mistake by relaxing our concentration and relying on them without caution and careful observation.

Let me give some examples.

In Greenville, Mississippi the other day before a meeting we were chatting about computers and how we depended on them. My friend argued that if he wasn’t working, he would have a flip phone still, rather than a smartphone. He then told me a story both hilarious and frightening. One of his grandnephews had passed away as a teenager of cancer. He was talking to a much young grandnephew and trying to both console and counsel him. His nephew had asked him why his cousin had died. My friend explained cancer and in brief the search for a cure, and ended by saying perhaps his nephew would end up becoming a doctor and helping find the cure when he grew up. The boy nodded as he listened, and then looked at his uncle and said, “Maybe so, but if not, I’ll ask Siri for help.” Siri is of course the robotron voice on Apple devices. We both laughed hard, but the other thing at work was how much the young boy already depended on this detached AI voice for his way forward.

Of course Amazon and Facebook are headline news example of shortcuts and greed failing to supervise their algorithms. Facebook of course is having to explain how its vaunted AI and algorithms allowed people to search out racist, misogynist, and anti-Semitic folks to be their hater buddies. A report by Pro Publica pulled their tail, and CFO Sandy “Lean-In” Sandburg drew the straw to go public on this by saying she was personally offended by it, but leaving the nagging question of why they had to be told this was a problem and didn’t know already? Oh, and of course they also allowed Russian fronts to create fake groups as long as they paid them $150,000 so that there was no nevermind. Amazon makes billions by tooling its algorithm so that when you buy item x, they will suggest that people who buy x, also usually by y and z with it. Someone had to pull their sleeve about the fact that their algorithm was helping people build bombs by linking the needed elements together. Whoops – bang!

Interviewing Edward Hess of the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia about his new book, Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age on Wade’s World on KABF makes all of this seem like child’s play. He wants to trigger a conversation by business, policy makers, and the rest of us about the tech revolution that is coming from these same directions. He argued that the job displacement would be many factors more than we saw in the Great Depression and that the impact would dwarf the Industrial Revolution when it took 60 to 80 years to recover the jobs. This is a revolution that takes the breath away once we start twisting our worry beads. His advice was start retraining yourself today because everyone from bottom to the top professionals could find themselves in the unemployment line without new skills.

I’m already running as fast as my legs can carry me just trying to keep up, but all of this is a warning to pay attention, ask hard questions even of the robots, and start planning your own survival strategy.


My Jay Thomas, Jon Terrell Story

the old Lakeview Theater in New Orleans

New Orleans  The actor, comedian, and radio personality Jay Thomas, born Jon Terrell, died recently. I read his obituary with interest. His career had included memorable parts and some awards in shows from “Mork and Mindy” to “Murphy Brown” and more recently “Ray Donovan” on Showtime. The obits mention that he was born in Texas, lived and went to high school in New Orleans, and died in Santa Barbara, California. In almost all of the reports they mention his recurring guest spot around Christmas on the “David Letterman Show” when he would retell a classic story of the time when he and a buddy were doing a radio promo at a car dealer in Charlotte, North Carolina with the original Lone Ranger in full regalia, Clayton Moore.

As it happens, I have a story that has often been retold in my own family as an enduring classic from my own adolescence in New Orleans where Jon Terrell is also a central character. I’m not sure how it all came to be. We must have been 10-years old in 5th or 6th grade together or maybe the Cub Scouts, but somehow Jon’s mother connected with my mother in the way of the world in the 1950s and invited me go with Jon to see a Saturday matinee at the Lakeview Theater across Bayou St. John from their big house on the other side.

We were scheduled to see the classic Disney film, Bambi, legendary to all children and making another appearance at their neighborhood movie house. One thing must have led to another and by the time Jon’s mom dropped us off, the crowd there had swollen to full capacity, and we couldn’t get tickets to the show. Mrs. Terrell had someplace to go and thinking nothing of it, there was another neighborhood theater right across the street on Harrison Avenue that was playing a double-feature, so she gave us our ticket money, and said she would pick us up at the end of the show.

The movie had already started, and we ran in excitedly getting seats in the darkened theater in the back where they were still available. It hardly mattered. Within minutes we were howling in horror, crawling under the seats in fear. We would occasionally both raise our heads for a minute or two above the seats, like small prairie dogs coming up to look around from our holes, before diving down to the floor again and holding our ears.

We had walked into Frankenstein in all of its black-and-white horror, and once we lived through that and finally settled into our seats for the first run release on the double bill, it was the The Blob, hardly less frightening to two young boys sidetracked from sweet fantasy of Bambi. In the Sputnik, duck-and-cover 1950’s, The Blob was almost more horrifying to us, because it seemed it could seep down our own streets and gobble up our houses as well, eating us and everything around us as we watched helplessly.

I’m not sure if Jon ever made anything of this story, but at the time it was the longest afternoon of our lives, and for me one of the most vivid memories of my boyhood. It is also the often unspoken explanation for why I usually change the channel and walk out of the room whenever anything remotely like a horror movie rolls across the screen.