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How to overcome AI's opaque image

Arthur Sullivan uhe
March 16, 2018

The Aspen Institute's two-day conference on artificial intelligence raised several interesting points. Among them was a need to energize the public — and German investors — on the benefits of AI.

Man looking at screens
Image: ZDF

"I'm a nerd!" Jana Eggers tells us in a tone that suggests she is very much at ease with the description.

Realistically, this airy room in the Berlin offices of the state of Baden-Württemberg, where a major conference on artificial intelligence (AI) took place on Wednesday and Thursday, is probably full of self-confessed nerds unlikely to be too upset by the moniker.

Considering the tasks many of them have taken on in their professional lives — the understanding and developing of artificial intelligence systems — that brain power is needed. In effect, they are trying to build tech that mirrors the functioning of that most remarkable of natural organs, the human brain.

Read more: Teachers for AI — can robots create more jobs than they retire?

Naturally, people like Eggers know lots about AI and are passionate about it as well. She is the CEO of Nara Logics, a neuroscience-inspired AI company that uses principles of brain functioning to help companies use data more effectively.

But for the millions of people living in the city around this building, how many are actually engaged by the topic of AI beyond the slightly scary headlines and blockbuster movies? It's a concept we are hearing more and more of, from self-driving cars to robots supposedly coming to take all the jobs, but are we really listening?

Five panelists discuss AI
Computer scientists, robotics experts, physicists, neuroscientists and algorithmic anoraks — some serious brain power is on display at the Aspen Institute's conference.Image: DW/A. Sullivan

Lighting up the black box

"I give talks a lot on how to try and get people more engaged," Eggers told DW, "particularly on tech companies and enterprises that are going into digitization, because a lot of the time, AI is treated as some kind of 'special forces' type activity.

"It can't all be in that black ops world. We need to expect more from the technology. I think we are starting to come around to this idea. We've got to expect AI to be more than just a 'black box'."

driverless bus
The term 'black box' describes the fact that many of the processes around AI are opaque and mysterious to people — like for example a driverless mini-bus cruising along public streets.Image: picture-alliance/Keystone/C. Zingaro

Yet, as Jana Eggers points out, AI is something that almost everyone reading this article will have probably already used several times today, whether they have been looking at online maps, used a digital translation system or simply watched a movie recommended to them on Netflix.

Michael Feindt, the founder of a German AI retail start-up called Blue Yonder agrees that AI needs to become a more mainstream topic. "We need to make the subject cool," he says. "We here all work in it and love it but most people don't care too much either way."

Time for some deep learning

The nuts and bolts of the technology behind artificial intelligence — neural networks and all that — would probably not make a great coffee table book, so maybe it's not so surprising that some of the pressing lethal, ethical and moral questions are not getting the attention they deserve beyond conferences like this one.

Read more: Does technology threaten democracy?

Yet a country like Germany has much to gain by engaging its population on the topic of AI as soon as possible.

There has been plenty of characteristic angst and Teutonic gnashing of teeth over the way in which Germany has not quite embraced the digital revolution in the way you might think Europe's economic powerhouse ought to have.

"Many big German decision-makers have not become successful by building algorithms," says Feindt. "We Germans love to build tangible, physical things and the building blocks of AI are not necessarily things you can see easily." 

It's a discussion point many German observers will be aware of, and perhaps, a little tired of. But for those cursing the absence of a German Google or Apple, there is plenty of belief, at this conference at least, that Germany has learned from the mistakes it made over the past 20 years in terms of a lack of investment in tech.

"What is interesting is that the word 'courage' has been brought up here a lot about Germany in the last few days, that the country needs more of it to progress in the digital future," says Eggers, an American who previously worked in Germany.

"That cautiousness can hold you back. I found that here with the culture around start-ups when I worked here. It was missing some courage to go ahead and go more strongly into the start-up culture.

"You're going to get hurt even worse if you don't do it with AI. The talent is here and now the opportunities need to be provided. And it's not just about courage. There are also a lot of structural barriers to starting companies that are much higher here than they are in the US."

Tied computer cable
An innate cautiousness in German culture has perhaps held back investment and technological development in a country with one of the slowest internet speeds in western Europe.Image: Fotolia/Calado

Can Germany find its digital courage?

The opposite of courage, fear, has also played a part. That is an obvious concern with something like AI. Fears over artificial intelligence and robotics leading to mass lay-offs, or worse, is perhaps responsible for the queasiness of many on the topic.

Yet, as Lothar Schröder, a digital specialist and board member with the large German trade union Verdi, pointed out, heavy German investment in AI now could reap very tangible economic benefits and avoid potential ruin in the future.

"If companies refuse to modernize, they will suffer," he said. "Two good examples are Nokia and Kodak. They were both market leaders who missed the boat, Nokia with phones and Kodak with digital photography.

"Germany wondered how Nokia, a company that once made rubber rain boots, started making mobile phones. But then they fell, because they didn't make smartphones when it was time to."

Meanwhile, Feindt believes the media has a big role to play in covering the positive sides of AI, to convince people of the worth of investing in it.

Read more: Google's AI-driven smartphone will learn what you like

Yet, in what was a reflection of the healthy tone of debate at this week's conference, there were plenty of warnings about getting too heavily dependent or wedded to the technology.

At the end of his presentation, Frank Kirchner, a robotics specialist who works with the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) in the city of Bremen, asked the audience to tell him in which direction North was.

"Only around three of you really know," he said. "Not so long ago, there was a time when you all would have known because your life depended on knowing things like that. We need to be careful with all of these changes that are happening. We don't want artificial intelligence to make us more stupid, after all."