Recently, a neat little documentary popped up in my Netflix queue.
AlphaGo recounts the five-round face-off between renowned international Go champion Lee Sedol, and Google DeepMind’s Artificial Intelligence computer program AlphaGo, which uses a neural network that allows it to “learn” as it plays. You might not have heard of the epic Go showdown on this continent, but it was a major event in South Korea, where Go is so integral that it’s taught to children in school alongside math and reading.
Go, which has been played continuously for over 2,500 years, is deceptively complex. The game is comprised of a basic grid on which players place black and white stones in an attempt to claim territory and capture the other player’s pieces – sounds simple, but there are more possible permutations in Go than there are atoms in the universe. Go is so elegant that some devotees see it as a form of meditation on existence itself. “It’s intensely contemplative,” Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center, attests, “like putting your hand on the third rail of the universe.”
Given Go’s philosophical underpinnings, it’s understandable that Lee Sedol – ranked 9-dan (essentially a Go black belt) – enters the match sporting the arrogance of the exceptionally gifted. Surely a computer, even an intelligent one, is incapable of displaying the profoundly human thought processes that Go demands. I won’t spoil the film’s various twists and turns, but what surprised me, in the end, was how fear gradually gave way to joy. Instead of ruining the fun of playing Go through its artificial mastery, AlphaGo came to be seen as expanding the possibilities for gameplay. By deploying moves and strategies that no human player would ever have considered, AlphaGo not only challenged its human adversaries to be more creative and innovative tacticians but also opened up previously untapped dimensions of the game.
Whereas the computer had initially learned from the world’s greatest players, now those same players – much to their own surprise – were having their perspectives expanded by the computer. Go aficionados of every stripe and skill level are all the richer for it.
Watching AlphaGo, it struck me that while proponents tend to make the case for AI in terms of convenience – the various ways, that is, that AI stands to make our lives easier and more efficient – we have largely overlooked the potential for AI to create opportunities for self-growth, and ultimately, happiness. Hey, I’m not saying fewer chores and having errands taken care of on our behalf wouldn’t be awesome (it would), but what are the more direct ways in which AI stands to deliver more?
How about a smart-home that learns how to interpret behavioural patterns and physical cues for its owner’s mood? When your house really feels you, it can make subtle calibrations to temperature, raise window blinds or boost built-in therapeutic light. It could tell your fridge to prepare a salad, pop some popcorn, pour you a beer, or instruct your coffee maker to moderate your caffeine intake. We might even imagine a scale that lies about your weight when it realizes you just can’t deal with your diet and then collaborates with your TV to suggest an inspiring and heart-warming documentary on Netflix.
Or, maybe you’ve seen the famed fluffy baby harp seal robot PARO? PARO made quite the splash (pun intended) a few years ago as a “companion animal” for dementia patients in elder care facilities. PARO was a welcome companion for patients not otherwise capable of looking after live animals or housed in places that don’t permit them while providing many of the same benefits. Not only does PARO lessen the need for expensive pharmaceutical medications with a host of negative side effects, according to researcher Wendy Moyle, the robot “reduced agitation and anxiety and improved quality of life and pleasure. We had people who hadn’t communicated for a couple of years start actually communicating through the use of PARO.” I wouldn’t suggest that robots should replace human interaction, but studies are demonstrating that entities like PARO are a decent supplement when people are unavailable, helping to lift the weight of confusion, loneliness, and depression.
AI could boost a PARO-like device to the next level. Imagine a companion robot equipped with sophisticated software that allows it to be constantly attuned to subtle changes in physicality, mood, and attention. In the same way as Fitbits monitor motion to gather biometric data, an AI animal could measure shifts in motor skills, as well as sleep patterns, blood pressure, and – through the use of facial recognition software – notice cues indicative of confusion and disorientation, such as dilated pupils. The goal here would be to design a companion that can help oversee a patient’s overall health – detecting and adjusting to the various ebbs and flows of mood, emotion, and cognition as the day unfolds, and as the disease progresses. An AI-powered companion that is constantly learning how to optimize these tasks over time.
AI will certainly make daily life easier simply by making it more convenient, but we should add to the conversation the potential for AI to improve our lives by bringing joy and happiness, whether that is by fostering new possibilities for, and perspectives on, a 2,500-year-old game, being there for us after a bad day or ensuring that some of our most vulnerable citizens never feel lost or alone again. That’s the kind of intelligence we should all be able to rally around.
Nav Dhunay is the Co-founder & CEO of Imaginea AI.