Artificial Intelligence could be a threat to humanity

In the 1984 movie The Terminator, a powerful, artificially intelligent computer called Skynet became self-aware, took control of the world’s weapons arsenals, including its nuclear weapons, declared war on its creators, and launched an all-out war on humans. Its mission: to wipe humankind off the face off the earth.

Terminator was a great movie, and made for great entertainment, but it left a lingering question in the mind of the audience: is it possible in real life?

Rogue Machines

The idea of artificially intelligent computers going rogue and taking over the world is not new, and is a recurring theme in dozens of science fiction movies and novels, like the movieEx Machina, the Matrix movie series and Asimov’s novel, “I, Robot”, which was also adapted into a movie.

It is perhaps because of the ideas propagated by these works of fiction that, whenever there are discussions on the rapid pace of technological advancement, and AI in particular, the first reaction for a lot of people is one of fear, or at the very least, concern. I’ve personally been told after numerous talks and presentations that nothing good can come out of technology in the long run.

But it’s not just works of fiction that spread these ideas. Some leading scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs have also expressed concern about the rise of artificial intelligence. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, warns that AI is “our biggest existential threat”. The late Stephen Hawking was concerned that “AI could spell the end of the human race”.

Then there are breakthroughs in the world of technology that are so astounding that they leave no doubt that computers are getting really, really smart. One such breakthrough happened last year when an AlphaGo, a computer equipped with deep learning artificial intelligence capabilities, won a game of Go against the reigning world champion, Lee Se-dol.

When you consider that Go is an ancient game which is extremely complex, where players use moves and strategies handed down over generations, then you can begin to appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment.

But it didn’t stop there. The creators of AlphaGo went on to create an even more advanced system called AlphaGo Zero, which wiped out AlphaGo at the same game. It accomplished this after only 40 days of self-learning.

Then there was the news of Google Assistant, an artificial intelligence system that made a natural, human-like phone call to a salon and made an appointment.

What exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

A survey conducted in 2017 by Sage, an American cloud business management services company, revealed that nearly 50% of consumers in the USA and the UK had no idea what artificial intelligence was about. It will be reasonable to assume that South Africans are no different.

So what exactly is artificial intelligence, or AI? Putting it very simply, AI is a term used when machines are programmed to mimic human intelligence and cognitive functions such as learning and problem solving.

AI can be applied to achieve something as simple as playing and winning a game of tic-tac- toe, through performing optical character recognition, where computers recognize handwriting. Then there are the really complex functions like controlling self-driving cars.

We use AI on an almost daily basis. Google Assistant on Android devices is an example of advanced AI, and so is your mobile phone’s camera app that recognizes and highlights human faces. Google maps also has AI which helps you to find the quickest route to your destination.

Many times, we put our lives in the hands of AI without even realizing it. Have you taken a long flight recently? When the pilot switches to auto-pilot, who do you think is keeping the plane in the air? You guessed it: artificial intelligence algorithms.

Is AI essentially a Threat?

So, the big question is, are we going to face an evil, super-intelligent computer like Skynet someday in the future? Is it possible that we have already begun to create this “Frankenstein” machine that will someday gain consciousness and become our nemesis?

While people like Elon Musk believe that this is indeed possible, a lot of experts strongly disagree, saying that the opponents of AI are vastly over-estimating its power and under- estimating the power of the human mind. Other experts warn that needless fear-mongering is irresponsible, as it will potentially hinder the progress of technology.

One such person is Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, who said that Elon Musk’s statement was “irresponsible”.

Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Institute, a department within Toyota that works on artificial intelligence projects, believes that artificial intelligence has tremendous potential for improving people’s lives, and that sentiments like those expressed by Elon Musk could be “emotional reactions to science-fiction dystopian descriptions of AI overlords”.

To answer the big question, AI is not evil. Computers are not, and cannot be evil. They are lifeless machines, and AI is nothing more than a set of instructions that we feed into a machine, nothing more.

The bigger concern should be “who” is giving those instructions.

What is the future of AI?

It is almost impossible to predict the trajectory that technology is going to take with any degree of certainty. In the 1980’s we had phones, computers, video cassette players, audio cassette players, still cameras, video cameras and modems. Yet no one could have predicted that one day all those devices will be compressed into a small piece of glass and metal in the palms of our hands. But fast forward to 2018, and we cannot live without our cell phones.

We will just have to wait and see how the story unravels, with cautious optimism. Technology certainly has the potential to improve our lives, but it will undoubtedly bring with it new challenges. But§ in time we will, as a human race, overcome these, like we did countless times in the past.

So, should we be afraid of artificial intelligence? There’s no evidence that suggests we should. But then again, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are no fools. Were they perhaps onto something?

Wake up and plug into the future

Can you imagine a time when your cellphone will be able to make a call on your behalf and actually converse with someone? This may sound like science fiction, but that time is here. A few weeks ago, Google conducted a spectacular demonstration where Google Assistant, Google’s artificially intelligent system, made a call to a hair salon and made an appointment.

What was truly great about the demonstration was that Google Assistant dialed the salon and spoke to the receptionist in a casual, human-like fashion. It was so convincing that the receptionist did not know she was speaking to a machine. Google Assistant even dropped in a casual, very human-like “Mm-hmm” into the conversation!

“The amazing thing is that Google Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation,” according to Google CEO, Sundar Pichai. “We’ve been working on this technology for many years. It’s called Google Duplex.”

What this simply means, is that the system is able to speak, listen and understand, all at the same time, just like a human. What’s more, the system can even react intelligently if the conversation takes an expected turn.

Conversations with machines
It was a truly remarkable demonstration, and a sure sign of things to come. In the near future, your phone will be able to make calls on your behalf to make appointments and bookings, or even take a call for you if you are busy, and conduct an intelligent conversation with the caller. Perhaps it will even be able to mimic your voice.

It certainly isn’t hard to imagine a time when you might call a company and have a full conversation with someone who you think is human, but will, in actual fact, be a computer. This will surely make business sense: why hire dozens of call center agents when a single computer will suffice?

Undoubtedly, information technology has come a long way, and these are truly amazing times to be alive. There was a time when we used to marvel at the little things, like being able to make face-to-face calls to people in other parts of the world, or send a text message, an image, an audio clip or a video anywhere in the world in seconds.

I remember being fascinated when online flight bookings became a thing, and I still haven’t gotten over the fact that if I need a ride, I can open an app, choose a destination, make payment, and then be picked up by a car within minutes. But all that was way back in 2017. Things have moved on now. Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

There are many things that distinguish the fourth industrial revolution from its forerunner, but the most significant differentiator is that in the past, computers and technology were simply tools that we used to streamline our lives. They were really powerful tools, and were great at what they did, but ultimately the human was the controller. We had our place in the real world, and they had theirs in the cyber-world.

But now, all that has changed. The lines are blurred, and computers are no longer confined to the digital world. They’ve made their foray into the real world, and have begun to do things that were traditionally done by humans. Back then, they were extensions of our minds, but now they have minds of their own. They are able to sense their surroundings, converse, and make decisions. They are even able to drive vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are already being prototyped in parts of the world, and once they have been thoroughly tested and perfected, it will be just a matter of time before they replace human-driven vehicles entirely, just as the ‘automobile’ replaced the horse just over a century ago. There will probably come a time when it will actually be strange to see a human driving a vehicle.

Taking it a step further, Dubai successfully tested an autonomous passenger drone taxi, which is projected to be in full operation by 2020. Take a moment to take this in: an autonomous flying taxi. This is not science fiction; it is a reality.

Then there are the wearable devices, which are computers embedded inside clothing, like watches and footwear. These devices are intelligent enough to monitor our health and fitness, and even warn us when something is not right. Consider the case of a Hong Kong man whose life was saved by his Apple watch: the watch detected an abnormally high heart rate, and gave him a warning. He immediately sought medical assistance, and doctors found that he had almost suffered a heart attack.

Communication in the 21st Century

Communication in the 21st century is not just between humans; it is between us and our myriad devices, their communications with each other, and their environments. We are living in a connected, technology-driven world that was mere science fiction just a couple of decades ago, but is now our reality.

No one really knows where all this is heading. As technology marches ahead, computing power and storage increases exponentially, and as brilliant, innovative individuals keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, the story will unravel. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that whatever the future holds, it is going to be very interesting.

The big question for us is, what role will our kids play in this? Will they be at the forefront of technology innovation, or will they be passive observers? Do we have a comprehensive strategy in place for them?

Will Africa play a meaningful role in the fourth industrial revolution?

Bilal is Head of Learning and Teaching Innovation at Educor
He blogs about kids, technology and education at

What is Coding?

Coding is a real buzzword these days. People talk about the importance of teaching kids to code at school, and about how important coding is for future career success. But do you know what coding is?

Short answer: you know how we communicate with each other using human languages like English, French, Spanish etc.? Well, computers communicate using their own language, which is called code. It’s that simple.

More detailed answer: coding means giving instructions to computers to do certain tasks, from something as simple as adding 2 numbers to extremely complex tasks like flying a plane on autopilot or managing flight traffic in an airport. Everything, and I mean everything that a computer does is code. Without code, computers will be totally dumb.

Wherever you see a computer, you know there’s code telling it what to do. And there are computers everywhere, like your smart phone, which is a computer. When you switch on your phone, there’s code that tells it what to do. Making a call? There’s code running. Open an app? That app is code. Candy Crush? You guessed it: code.

We are surrounded by code all the time. And I don’t just mean in our computers and phones. There are computers in our cars, appliances, watches, clocks, pool pumps, etc. And all these are run on code.

What’s interesting about code is that, just like human languages, there are different computer languages too. You might come across terms like Java, HTML and C# (pronounced C sharp). These are all computer programming languages, and you can code in any one of them.

What coding is not: coding is not about cracking codes, like bank account access credentials. That’s called hacking 🙂

The Facebook scandal: what you need to know

Facebook has been caught up in a major scandal over the Cambridge Analytica issue. But what really happened, and what does it mean to you?

Before we go into this scandal, let’s understand how Facebook makes money as a business. I mean, Facebook is a BIG business, worth around $500 billion, yet it’s completely free to use.  So how do they actually make money?

Facebook makes money through targeted advertising. This means that advertisers pay Facebook to advertise to people who are more likely to buy their products. This is great for advertisers because they save huge amounts of money by targeting a small group of people.

I’ll explain this with an example. Let’s say you sell baby clothes. Who will be the best people to advertise to? Kids? Teenagers? Middle-aged businessmen? No! The people most likely to buy baby clothes are mums who are expecting, or who have recently given birth. So it makes sense that you should target them in your advertising.

Facebook will allow you to target specific people. So, if you want to target expecting mums, they’ll do it.

But how do they know if a woman is expecting? Easy: because she tells them! When she posts on Facebook or Instagram talking about her pregnancy to her friends and family, Facebook is listening. And remembering. So when an advertiser is looking for pregnant mums, bingo.

In the same way, Facebook keeps track of all our personal information: interests, hobbies, beliefs, political inclinations, you name it. It’s correct to say that Facebook might know you better than your friends.

So Facebook is on the business of selling user data. Why then, the big hoohah with the Cambridge Analytica case? What makes it really bad is that:

  • Cambridge didn’t just advertise on Facebook. They actually took people’s data away without their permission. Some allege that Facebook knew about this all along, but did nothing about it.
  • According to some sources 50 million users were affected, while some say more.

When the news broke, there was an immediate frenzy that followed with media outlets asking people to #DeleteFacebook. Many people are doing just that, with some big names like Elon Musk joining the ranks.

Should you #DeleteFacebook?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. It’s entirely up to you what you do, but knowing what I’ve described above should help you make a decision.

If you feel comfortable with Facebook knowing and sharing your personal data, then stay. Just some advice:

  1. Keep your personal life personal, and be careful of what you share.
  2. Posts and pics that are of an extremely personal nature, should stay out.
  3. Pics of your little kids? Definitely not. You never know who’s watching.

Of course, if all this just creeps you out, then #DeleteFacebook.

So, what are you going to do? Please leave a comment below 🙂