The Future of Artificial Intelligence According to CMU Professor Reid Simmons

Reid Simmons, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has just finished a new season of kicks. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Simmons has seen many students reach that milestone, but the latest crop of graduates is special because they’re like penguins, he said.

The late Randy Pausch used the analogy when describing flightless birds that “wobble to the edge of the ice and they see the water, and they don’t know what’s in it,” Simmons said. “There could be a lot of fish or there could be predators, and it takes one adventurous penguin to jump in first.”

The students who just graduated — especially those who studied artificial intelligence — are like the penguins, because when they chose their degree, AI was a brand new major, said Simmons, director of CMU’s AI major. Four years ago, there was some “uncertainty” about whether these 39 students would land certain jobs or coveted places in graduate schools, but luckily they did, Simmons continued. “They are the pioneers and there is much to congratulate them for.”

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The research professor and Jewish blogger spoke to the Chronicle shortly after its launch, but didn’t spend much time looking back. Instead, he described the future — both in terms of AI and the students studying the field.

Thanks to movies like ‘The Terminator’, AI has long captivated human interest. Weeks ago, the topic received new attention when a Google engineer told The Washington Post that the company’s AI is sentient.

Media reports and Hollywood blockbusters spark interest in the field, but don’t properly explain the future of technology, Simmons said. These stories make great television or movies, but they are “very far from reality.”

Rather than focusing on robots taking over the world, the bigger concern is when “people using AI technologies do bad things to other people,” Simmons said. Any technology can be used for good or for bad; what is crucial, however, is that people “understand the difference and not be complicit in developing a technology that can be used for evil purposes.”

For Simmons, a Squirrel Hill resident who maintains a kosher cooking blog, Judaism is a helpful reminder of tackling certain issues related to AI.

“One of the main problems with AI is that if you feed it biased data, it produces biased results, and it can be discriminatory results,” he said. “Judaism teaches respect and love for all people, and I think this is something very important that we need to be aware of – that the technologies that we develop will not only be used for educated people who develop the technologies, but they should be used, and non-discriminatory, for all people, with respect for their autonomy, with respect for their privacy.”

Reid Simmons will lead the new Artificial Intelligence major at Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo courtesy of Reid Simmons)

There are cases when bad actors take advantage of technological advancements, but there are also times when people don’t pay enough attention to the products and materials being developed. For example, Simmons said there were problems recognizing African American faces early on in the development of face detection technology.

One of the main reasons why, according to Simmons, was because most of the training was done on “mostly white faces.”

This goes back to the idea that if you input AI-biased data, biased results are produced, he explained.

When early face-detection software didn’t recognize African-American faces, it wasn’t an “evil plot to discriminate against blacks,” Simmons said. “It was a lack of understanding about the diversity of training data needed to get the non-discriminatory result.”

Hoping future collaborations between ethicists and engineers will yield better results, Simmons pointed to a project supported by the National Science Foundation examining how AI can help older adults and their caregivers.

The project, led by Georgia Tech, is a five-year commitment that will look at “how we can help people, especially those with mild cognitive impairment, to live independently – in their own homes – by providing guidance through detect changes in their behavior,” he said. †

The hope is that CMU and other participating universities can develop fundamental technologies and “commerciable products” that help determine when a doctor or caregiver may be needed, Simmons said.

As the project progresses, engineers and ethicists work together to understand some of the underlying issues. Because the goal, Simmons said, is for the technologies to be designed in such a way that people “can use them and use them appropriately.”

Whether it’s helping people with cognitive impairments to stay at home or driving patients to their doctor autonomously, AI has the potential to “be a huge benefit to people,” Simmons said. “This is something I think we should embrace because it will radically change our lives for the better.”

And yes, there is a lot of fear about what AI is capable of, but this is not “something people should be concerned about. The most important thing is to ensure that the engineers who develop and apply this technology understand the ethical issues underlying the technology,” said Simmons. “If they do, I think there’s a tremendous amount of good that this technology can bring to people.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at [email protected]

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