Saturday, October 13, 2018

Origin–Dan Brown Takes on Artificial Intelligence

I avoided buying Origin by Dan Brown for about a year.While I really liked The Davinci Code, I have been disappointed with his other books. Recently I saw that it was available for Kindle and in a moment of weakness I bought it. I’m glad I did. It was a better book than others of his that I have read but the big interest for me was one particular character. Winston is an artificial intelligence executing on a quantum super computer. He (it?) has a key role in the plot.

Now both the computer and the AI software involved are far beyond what we have today. Of course part of the plot is that the eccentric, brilliant atheist who created Winston has achieved a huge advance beyond the rest of the computer science world. Naturally.

Winston, our AI with a British accent, helps our hero, Robert Langdon, and the beautiful (naturally) Ambra Vidal as they navigate the dangers involved in solving the mystery.

The questions I have been thinking about though come at the very end of the book. There are some surprises and some interesting and important questions. Now many will focus on the obvious science vs religion question that threads through the whole book but for me the interesting questions are the future of AI.

A lot of us grew up with science fiction AI governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of robotics. You may have noticed that people building artificial intelligence today in real life don’t seem to be programming Asimov’s laws in to their software. Brown’s Winston doesn’t appear to have those laws incorporated either.

I don’t want to give any spoilers but I will say that comparing Winston’s actions to how one of Asimov’s robots would have acted might be an interesting exercise. And topic for debate.

Where is AI going? What rules of ethics or behavior will be programmed in to it? Or will we let it develop its own laws and ideals of ethics? And what will it all mean for the future of mankind? These are the questions this story brought to my mind. Have you read the book? What questions did it bring to your mind?


Anonymous said...

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) look like interesting topics and something I would like to play with one of these summers. It looks more accessible now that there are packages available for Python. I have listened to a couple of podcasts on the topic, but have not tried anything.

Along those lines, I am interested in your thoughts on teaching AI/ML to high school students. Would that be doable for an independent study course for students after they have taken AP CSA?

Our school is small enough that we will only offer AP CSA every other year. Juniors who take the course this year would be able to take an independent study next year and looking for topics to have them dig into that would be interesting, long enough to learn for a year, and doable for a high school student.

Garth said...

The Davinci Code was good, the rest of his books were living off the fame of the Dacinci Code. Are you saying the Three Law of Robotics were not followed? I will have to hit Barnes and Noble.

On the AI conversation I simply have not seen anything in the way of a series of lesson plans or curriculum that I could step through that do not require extensive professional development on my part. I have found at the high school level that most teachers do not have time to build or develop a new topic from scratch. I have to have a cookbook course for the first year then the second year I can build my own course. Simply not enough time. I think AI is something that can and should be taught at the high school level, it is just having the right materials.

Richard White said...

This post comes at an interesting time for me. At my small independent school, at least two of my current students have some experience working with Python-based machine-learning tools as summer interns at Caltech. After some initial success connecting those older students with others at the school with an interest in the topic, I've decided to get us all together--I'm interested, too!--to share experiences, references, demos... anything that might be of interest. Our first full meeting is tomorrow.

I'm looking forward to seeing how things proceed. To your point, Garth, I'll be documenting what happens with the idea of developing a potential road map for a high school-level machine learning curriculum.

I've already had conversations with a couple of CS-savvy parents who have half-jokingly proposed that we shouldn't be teaching CS at all--the future is AI. I don't agree, but I *do* think the future of high school CS should include AI/ML, even if only as an independent project for schools that don't have the population to support a full class.

Stay tuned...!

Garth said...

Richard - Cool. Keep me informed.