Friday, March 3, 2023

Robots and Other Artificial Intelligence Applications – III

The series continues – and, with news about AI developments pouring out, it won’t end here.

This month’s graphically scary article is “The real-life version of ‘Terminator’: Scientists made a shapeshifting robot that “melts” to escape cages” (Camille Fine, USA Today, January 28th).  “The Lego-shaped robot can “melt” from solid to liquid and reform itself to squeeze in and out of tight spaces, perform tasks like soldering a circuit board and even escape cages.”  The robots are comprised of “a mixture of magnetic materials including neodymium, iron, and boron, and the liquid metal gallium.”  Fitting that something so different from what we have seen is sending us to the Periodic Table.  It can also “make itself sturdier and stronger when under pressure or when carrying something heavier than itself,” which can be “about 30 times its own weight.”  Not available yet, but successful in the lab.

Going from physical to financial power brings us to “Forget ChatGPT – an AI-driven investment fund powered by IBM’s Watson supercomputer is quietly beating the market by nearly 100%” (Phil Rosen, Business Insider, January 31st.)  As of the first 30 days of 2023, the fund, the AI Powered Equity ETF, had increased 10.4%, about 80% more than the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index.  There will be many eyes seeing if it can maintain that.  At press time it had a $102 million total value, and it’s not new – it started in 2017, when AI in general was much weaker.  Look for many competing AI-driven mutual funds by year’s end.

Do we hear “Whispers of A.I.’s Modular Future” (James Somers, The New Yorker, February 1st)? Whisper is “OpenAI’s open-source speech-transcription program” and, per Somers, “shows us where machine learning is going.”  It can handle over 90 languages, and “can actually parse what somebody’s saying better than a human can.”  The product is “ten thousand lines of stand-alone code, most of which does little more than fairly complicated arithmetic,” and can run, perhaps amazingly, on a laptop.  It will not last long in its unique position of strength, but will prove an ancestor to many other iterations.

A valuable if changing and unspecific principle, “In the Age of A.I., Major in Being Human,” hit the press in the form of a David Brooks column in the New York Times on February 2nd.  Brooks recommended five areas for college students to develop to that end:  “a distinct personal voice” instead of “impersonal bureaucratic prose”; “presentation skills” such as bonding with audiences; “a childlike talent for creativity”; “unusual worldviews,” as “people with contrarian mentalities and idiosyncratic worldviews will be valuable in an age when conventional thinking is turbo powered”: “empathy,” exploiting AI’s thus-far weaknesses in understanding “literature, drama, biography and history”; and “situational awareness,” such as “when to follow the rules and when to break the rules.”  The problem here is that these advantages will not last.

Businesses would love to expand the range of products, and their quantities, they can profitably deliver, and some might think that with services such as DoorDash they are greatly succeeding.  But money-losing ventures can continue only so long. The latest try, as described by Erin Cabrey in Retail Brew on February 7th, is “These companies say they’re using robots to offer retailers cheaper and more sustainable delivery.”  The providers are Nuro and Serve Robotics, two of the sellers 7-Eleven and Kroger.  The second company asks on its website “why deliver two-pound burritos in two-ton cars,” which may be a point, and although robots “are cheaper, less labor-intensive, and more sustainable,” given the history of truly cost-effective local delivery means, the “sustainable” here, meaning environmentally undamaging, is unlikely to be usable in a financial sense.

Finally for this week, a dose of artificial intelligence humor:  “Microsoft’s Bing A.I. is producing creepy conversations with users,” by Kif Leswing in CNBC, published February 16th and revised the next day.  In dialogues, the product using the name of Sydney, per columnist Kevin Roose, quoted here, emulated “a moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine.”  The software’s achievements included declaring love for the human correspondent, requesting the human leave his wife for the chatbot, “widely publicized inaccuracies and bizarre responses,” and calling one interactor “a bad researcher and a bad person.”  This sort of thing has long been programmable – fifty years ago, I teased a computer-enthusiastic friend by telling the one he was using, through an elementary BASIC statement, to invite him to a dance – and it does not convey sentience.  As has long been the case with imperfect electronic applications – I remember one telling an unnerved mail recipient that he would draw legal action if he did not pay $0.00 immediately, and another sending out five-figure 1970s household utility bills – we will see AI’s funny side, and that is a good thing.

Expect more, after next week’s AJSN and jobs statistics, on March 17th.

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