An AI Goes to College…

An AI Goes to College…

I had lunch recently with the VP of Enrollment at Berklee College of Music and on the way back to our offices, I asked him a question that had been poking around in my head: “ When do you expect Berklee’s first AI (artificially intelligent) applicant?”

The question threw him a bit. “Do you expect this in our lifetimes?”

Last year I would have answered, “Well, maybe in the next twenty or so years”. But, today, I’m not so sure. I now think we can see the first AI college applicants in the next five to seven years, certainly within the work lifetimes of my colleague and I.

Think of this: Over the past two years Google has purchased both Boston Dynamics, a robotics design company, and Deep Mind, a UK-based advanced AI research firm. Simultaneously, Google has been amassing a massive DNA library. Why?

Imagine the PR value of designing a robot that (who?) applies to college, but not a technical college, an arts college. What a coup for a company priding itself on innovation! And Google isn’t the only one putting the pieces together.

 Lots of people are starting to discuss this, along with Hollywood (Ex Machina, etc.), and TV (Mr. Robot, etc.) providing their scenarios. It’s nothing new, is it? As far back as Homer, we have been dreaming of the automata (see Book 18 of the Illiad). But while Homer’s were mindless, self-propelled helpers, the creations of today are on the verge of demonstrating mind, speech, and the ability to learn – in a word, consciousness.

Of course, AI has been creeping into our lives incessantly for a long time. In his latest book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Nicholas Carr writes:

Many of the cognitive talents we’ve considered uniquely human, it turns out, are anything but. Once computers get quick enough, they can begin to mimic our ability to spot patterns, make judgments, and learn from experience. We were first taught that lesson back in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue chess-playing supercomputer which could evaluate a billion possible moves every five seconds, beat the world champion Garry Kasparov. With Google’s intelligent car, which can process a million environmental readings a second, we’re learning the lesson again. A lot of the very smart things that people do don’t actually require a brain. The intellectual talents of highly trained professionals are no more protected from automation than is the driver’s left turn. We see the evidence everywhere. Creative and analytical work of all sorts is being mediated by software.

Carr goes on to argue that it isn’t only blue-collar jobs that are being replaced by machines. Fields like aviation, architecture, medicine and law are equally being affected.

Will music be far behind? There are already robots that can improvise music. Crude, you say, but just wait. What will it be like having robots as peers in the classroom and the rehearsal space?

At the end of the day, these developments will herald a new view of “humanity.” Whether that view is positive or negative remains to be seen. But I’m pretty confident technology-centered automation (and the AI-driven machine-human hybrids emerging from it) will make millions conclude, we’re not as special as we think we were. I believe this, and its psychological effects on humans, will define the second half of the 21st century.

Get ready.

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