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The Artificial Intelligence Task Force Wants to Do AI the Vermont Way

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John Cohn - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • John Cohn

Artificial Intelligence was once the stuff of science fiction. Now it's here, and every publication from the Washington Post to Wired to the Wall Street Journal is full of articles and videos exploring it. Depending on whom you listen to, AI will be a job killer or a job creator; a tool to boost productivity or Skynet from the Terminator movies; a technology that will dramatically transform society or an overhyped nothingburger.

To help prepare for this uncertain and potentially disturbing future, the Vermont legislature impaneled an Artificial Intelligence Task Force in 2018. Its mandate: to "investigate the field of artificial intelligence" in the state and make recommendations for how the technology can be responsibly applied in Vermont's economy and government.

The group, whose report is due to be submitted to the state legislature by the end of this year, has hosted several public meetings over the past few months, inviting Vermonters to present their questions, comments, ideas and concerns. The next one takes place on Thursday, October 17, at the Vermont Tech Jam in Essex Junction.

Receiving and processing all of this input is a group that includes engineers and academics, as well as labor leaders, Rep. Brian Cina (P-Burlington) and retired Vermont Supreme Court justice John Dooley.

Perhaps its best-known member is Richmond resident and IBM Fellow John Cohn. A hardware engineer by training, Cohn, 60, has earned more than 100 patents over his four decades at IBM. As playful as he is brilliant, Cohn has also helped fuel the DIY maker movement in Vermont, emceeing FIRST international high school robotics competitions wearing a tie-dyed lab coat and a crown of colorful LED lights. He even logged a two-month stint living in an abandoned warehouse for the Discovery Channel's postapocalyptic reality TV show "The Colony."

Cohn is currently assigned to the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, a research facility in Cambridge, Mass. Working on AI is part of his day job, as well as his civic duty.

He puts the task force's mission in perspective. "We segmented what we thought AI could be used for in Vermont," Cohn explains. "How would AI be used in agriculture? How would it be used in natural resources? How would it affect industry and manufacturing? How would it affect services?"

The task force has taken public testimony from experts in a broad range of fields. It has also solicited input directly from the public, as it will during the Tech Jam meeting, to assess and address Vermonters' feelings about AI.

"One of the things that's been very interesting is how much concern there is around AI," says Cohn. "I've been surprised at how much of the public discussion on this is around the potential downsides and care we have to take with AI. And that's true, we do.

"But I tend to be a technology optimist," he continues. "So, while it does make sense to be concerned about new technology and how it's going to interact with the rest of the world ... overall, the upside of this stuff is so compelling that, as long as you can teach people to design it carefully, ethically and safely and in a human-centric way, that benefit is going to be very positive.

Cohn notes that people tend to think of AI in a very general way. "So, rather than focus on the technology, what we were trying to do is think about how AI will affect Vermont, what it can do for Vermont, in all of these different ways," he says. "Can we become a haven for AI that supports Vermont's small and mighty independent businesses? Can we build on Vermont's small and mighty and green notion to have it amplify, not threaten, what we're doing?"

Still, it's hard for people to visualize what that means and what AI can do.

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Seven Days asked Cohn if it would be possible to have some of the AI technology he works on write an article, for instance. Could AI replace journalists?

The request turned out to be too logistically difficult to fulfill. But Cohn did have a suggestion: What about publishing an argument from one side of a debate? He pulled a few strings at Big Blue and got permission to let Seven Days reprint an argument from Project Debater.

Project Debater is the latest of IBM's Grand Challenges, a category of projects that includes the chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue and the brainiac bot Watson — the latter of which bested "Jeopardy!" champs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on the TV trivia show in 2011.

Project Debater doesn't come up with its own original arguments. It works by digesting a massive corpus of written material — mostly newspaper and magazine articles and commentary — on a given topic and then distilling it into a structured argument, depending on which side of a debate it's been given to argue.

The practical applications of a program that can formulate purely logical and dispassionate arguments — and react in real time to counterpoints — are enormous.

"Let's say a city council wants public opinion on what we should do with a city park. How would you actually weigh that and synthesize that?" says Cohn. "You would get a ton of data, but it's really hard and expensive to parse that scientifically and measure nuance." Project Debater, he continues, is "a tool for someone who wants to explore different points of view."

Like its older siblings Deep Blue and Watson, Project Debater competes with humans. While it's not unbeatable in a debate (yet), Cohn says the computer has largely impressed.

"Debater is still learning," says Cohn. "So it has beaten some world-class debaters and it has not beaten some world-class debaters. It's close, though. It debates like an expert."

But don't take his word for it — see for yourself. What follows is an argument the computer devised during a debate about the effects of social media at the United Nations' AI for Good Global Summit earlier this year in Geneva, Switzerland.

Yes, the computer is essentially arguing against using computers — at least for our social media fix. Because fun, right?

Please note that Seven Days' human editors and proofreaders have resisted the powerful urge to correct Project Debater's punctuation or fix any grammatical errors, as that would defeat the purpose of the project.

Take it away, PD...

Opinion: Social media brings more harm than good

By Project Debater

Warm greetings, AI for good visitors. The following narrative was composed automatically, from short arguments contributed by many people around the globe.

There are four issues I would like to address. They explain why Social media brings more harm than good. I will begin by claiming that Social media do not allow accountability of who is disseminating fake news. Then I will comment about family, addictive behaviors and opinion. Fake news first. Social Media is being used as a manipulation tool to benefit the interests of a small group of people at the expense of the majority. It is often misused as a channel to spread rumors and falsehoods and such news can spread in an uncontrolled manner. Content in social media is too easily faked and can negatively influence too many people's thoughts. Fake news can cause misleading information, which results in the world misjudging the situation. 

I also mentioned family. Children and young adults are struggling in school because of the overuse of social media on smartphones which is taking away from their focus in the classroom. Social media entice people to paint a picture of themselves and their families which is often too good to be true because they want to keep up appearances. Facebook use can cause addiction and loss of important quality time with the family. Social media claims to keep people connected with their families and friends but it actually seems to bring feelings of loneliness more often than it brings feelings of togetherness. 

Let's move to addictive behaviors. Social media in its current and most prolific forms rewards users' negative traits, like attention seeking, and reduces their real-life interactions with other human beings. Though social media brings people closer, it is causing too much of anxiety, noise and unwanted information overload, ultimately negating and over-weighing the positive effects it brings. Some young people commit suicide because they are being harassed on their social network. Excessive screen time and notifications of individual social media users can easily distract users from face-to-face interaction. 

Finally, opinion. Social media creates the illusion that one's opinion carries any weight in the world, thus swelling egos that are already too big. It gives many a false perception of reality as it makes it very easy for people to avoid having productive discussions. Because of social media people tend to stay in the comfort zone of their filter bubbles, so they end up isolated from diverse opinions. The opinion of a few can now determine the debate, it causes polarized discussions and strong feelings on non-important subjects. 

These arguments from the crowd convey that Social media brings more harm than good. Thank you for listening. 

Correction: October 16, 2019: This article has been corrected to note that the Vermont legislature impaneled the Artificial Intelligence Task Force in 2018.

The AI Task Force will hold a public meeting at the Vermont Tech Jam, Thursday, October 17, 1 p.m., at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. Free. techjamvt.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Signs of Intelligent Life | The Artificial Intelligence Task Force wants to do AI the Vermont way"