As artificial intelligence grows smarter, the debate rages on about if--or when--its abilities will eventually surpass us.

At least one person in the tech world isn't worried about the prospect of robot overlords: Adam Cheyer, co-founder of Siri, the voice assistant company that Apple acquired in 2010. Speaking at South by Southwest on March 11, Cheyer summarized Google Brain founder Andrew Ng: Worrying about A.I. becoming too smart right now is like worrying about overpopulation on Mars.

"We're barely at the beginning of A.I.," Cheyer said. "There's nothing to even be done yet."

At this point, A.I. systems can only perform very specific tasks in the physical world, and they don't possess emotions or consciousness.

Plus, he said, the intelligence it has is specialized--so much so that a system trained to play a board game like chess can't translate those skills over to checkers without being programmed by a human to do so. Even in the cases of Siri, Amazon's Alexa, or IBM's Watson, systems that possess huge swaths of knowledge are actually fairly limited.

"Today's computers," Cheyer said, "don't have the ability to generalize the way a two-year-old human can."

The Mars analogy is a thinly veiled jab at Elon Musk, who in addition to being obsessed with the prospect of colonizing Mars is also one of the tech world's biggest A.I. fearmongers. Along with Y Combinator founder Sam Altman, Musk co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit with $1 billion in pledged backing that has the goal of ensuring artificial intelligence is used for good. Musk has in the past referred to A.I. as the "biggest existential threat" to humanity.

Still, the Mars analogy underplays the rate at which technology improves--just compare advancements in tech from the past 20 years to those of the previous hundred. Artificial intelligence might still be in its early days, but the rate of improvement is likely to grow even faster, so there's merit in taking precautions now.

Cheyer, who co-founded the personal assistant software company Viv in 2012, also pointed out that the way humans interact with computers is due for a change. In 1985, the personal computer arrived; in 1995, the web browser; in 2007, the smartphone. "We're overdue for a paradigm shift," he said.

One way that could happen, Cheyer says, is with chatbots, whether they're text-based or conversation-based. "Every company will not only have a website and an app," he said, "but also an assistant that can provide information about the company and answer questions."

Published on: Mar 13, 2017