All around us are stories of allegedly smart gadgets with minds of their own. To read some of them, you would think that our gadgets are on the verge of rising up and taking over the world like so many Hollywood movies in the sci-fi genre. If you are worried about the robot apocalypse, don’t be. Our gadgets are not really thinking.
In May 2019, Fox News contributor John Brandon wrote a story featuring five smart devices he said could “think for you.” The gadgets included a video surveillance camera, a smart door lock, a video doorbell, a front-load washing machine, and a stationary bike.
All of the gadgets he described are truly amazing from a technology standpoint. And yes, they do make use of artificial intelligence and deep learning. But the devices still don’t think. They cannot think, nor is it likely they ever will.
The Truth about Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence is defined in many ways. Science Daily defines it as “the study and design of ‘intelligent agents’ where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions which maximizes its chances of success.”
In order to truly understand what is being said here, we must define ‘intelligence’. For that we turn to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. It defines intelligence as follows:
· The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations;
· The skilled use of reason; and
· The ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria.
The key to intelligence is the ability to think abstractly. An intelligent agent can figure out what it does not know, then find the information necessary to self-educate. An intelligent agent can think on its own without the need for external input. Artificial intelligence is not capable of that.
True artificial intelligence does not exist. Machines cannot figure out what they don’t know and subsequently discover the information they need. All machines can do is respond to the programming that operates them. As such, what we call artificial intelligence is really the ability to statistically analyze data according to set parameters and then plot a course of action accordingly.
What Smart Devices Do
With an understanding of what artificial intelligence actually is, we can start looking at devices like smart thermostats and voice assistants. Let us start with a smart thermostat capable of adjusting its own programming.
When you install a smart thermostat, you create a base program. Then you let the thermostat run. Using a variety of sensors throughout the home, your system sends data to the thermostat’s software – data that indicates activity inside the home. The software includes a certain threshold.
If activity drops below that threshold, the system determines low or no activity. A regular schedule of low or no activity will trigger a command to adjust the thermostat program. The system will automatically adjust the temperature during those times when no activity is normally measured.
Now, the system hasn’t actually learned anything. It has simply responded to its programming. The thermostat cannot program itself, nor can it figure out if its own programming is not working properly. Thus, it is not truly intelligent.
The Smart Speaker
Another common smartphone device is the voice assistant. Vivint calls them ‘smart speakers’. They include devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Assistant. Just speak to your smart speaker and watch it do its thing.
Once again, your smart speaker doesn’t actually think. It does not learn either. It recognizes what you have asked based on voice recognition technology, converts what you have asked into data, and then goes online and compares that data to its own database of programmed responses. It can look things up online, turn your lights on, and so forth.
We like to think that our gadgets are capable of true learning and artificial intelligence. But they are not. We only chose the terms we use because explaining the scientific truth behind smart devices is a lot of work and difficult to understand. The sum of all of this is to say that you do not have to worry about a robot apocalypse. It is not going to happen – at least not in your lifetime.