Sunday
Sep032017

Flying cars, anyone?

Flying cars are staples of many science fiction films but none has managed to capture the imagination of audiences like the flying DeLorean in the 1980s classic Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox. Watching that movie made all of us wonder: When will we be able to fly in a car?

Actually, people have been looking forward to flying cars since early last century. In 1940, Henry Ford was quoted as saying: “Mark my word: a combination of airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

Well, it’s been a long time coming but flying cars are finally about to arrive. Self-driving cars — once also thought of as the stuff of science fiction — is already starting to happen and it’s just a few years before flying cars start to become a reality. Actually, when you say “flying car”, you’re likely to be referring to one of two concepts. A flying car could mean any small, car-sized vehicle that can fly through the air. It could also mean a hybrid vehicle that can both fly through the air and be driven on the road. There are about a dozen start-ups working on a flying car and each is pursuing a version that is either a pure flying vehicle or a hybrid one that can both fly and drive.

PURE FLYING MACHINE

Perhaps it’s only fitting that we look at DeLorean first since we started this article with a mention of DeLorean’s flying DMC-12 from Back to the Future. Back in real life, the real DeLorean company is indeed working on a flying vehicle which it calls the DR-7. Ironically, it’s not designed to be driven but is purely a flying machine. Kitty Hawk was where the Wright brothers worked on the world’s first airplane. It’s also the name of a flying car company funded by Google co-founder Larry Page. Helming the project is Sebastian Thrun, a self-driving car pioneer. But its vehicle also doesn’t seem to be designed for driving on the streets. Video clips from the company show an aircraft that’s designed to operate over water.For those types of flying cars that can actually be driven on a highway, we have to look at companies like AeroMobil 3.0, a Slovakian company that’s developing a car with wings that can unfold when you want to transition from driving to flying. Apparently it uses normal petrol and can fit into a standard parking space.

Terrafugia is another company working on a flying vehicle that can double as a car. Like AeroMobil’s flying car, it also features folding wings and is aptly named: Transition.But it’s not just start-ups that are working on flying cars. European aircraft giant Airbus is working on several types of flying vehicles including something it calls Pop.Up, a two-passenger pod that can clip onto a set of wheels for driving or hang under a quadcopter for flying. If you find all of this fascinating, you can Google these other flying car projects and see all the cool concepts out there: Lilium Jet, EHang 184, S2 and Volocopter. The technology to make flying cars is upon us and most of the companies mentioned so far have projects that are already far beyond the concept stage. Many have working prototypes. So, it’s not a technological issue that would hold back the mass rollout of flying cars.

GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE

One of the chief challenges of a flying car industry is economics. Especially at the initial stage, a flying car would cost a bomb and only multi-millionaire businessmen would be able to afford these things. Although figures vary considerably from project to project, it’s been estimated that a flying car could cost as much as US$10 million (RM42.5 million). Perhaps flying cars can replace sports cars and yachts as the new status symbol for rich tycoons. But it won’t be affordable for the typical person probably for decades to come.

The other obvious challenge is that it won’t be easy to operate such vehicles. Presumably, a person would need to have both a driving and a flying licence to drive/fly these things. There’s also the issue of Air Traffic Control. Our city skylines aren’t exactly designed for cars to fly through. How are you going to make sure flying cars don’t crash into each other mid-air as they zip through the city?

For a solution to this, we can look at the self-driving car industry. It’s well established that self-driving cars are much safer than human-driven cars. So maybe flying cars should be autonomously flown as well. In other words, humans don’t fly it but instruct it to fly to a certain destination and the computer takes over. This would remove human error from the equation. But how many people would dare to travel in a flying vehicle with no pilot? Some surveys have shown that only a tiny minority of people — about 10 per cent — actually trust self-driving cars. Imagine what the figure would be for self-flying cars!

Who knows how long it’ll be before flying cars become as commonplace as the cars we see on the road today. I suspect not even in our lifetime although the technology to build them is already here. Of course, all the start-ups working on flying cars hope that someday they’ll become mainstream transportation vehicles. But in the short term, they’ll inevitably be high-end recreational toys for the rich and famous. For the rest of us, we can catch a glimpse of the future of transportation by watching the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics where Toyota’s flying car, called “SkyDrive”, is supposed to be used to help light up the Olympic flame.

Sunday
Aug272017

Are we looking at designer kids?

If you saw the 1997 movie, Gattaca starring Ethan Hawke and Jude Law, you’d get a glimpse of what society could look like if we could alter genes to create “perfect” humans. Well, life isn’t all that perfect even when society is full of perfect people, as the movie clearly shows.

Two decades ago the notion of editing genes was science fiction. Today, it’s starting to happen. Earlier this month, some American scientists announced that they had successfully corrected a genetic defect in human embryos by editing their genes.

To do this, a team of scientists led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of the Oregon Health & Science University used a cutting-edge gene editing tool known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) which allowed them to fix a disease-carrying mutation that causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that can lead to heart failure.

CRISPR is a combination of chemical sequences that can make very precise changes to DNA. To do this, the scientists will inject donor sperm and CRISPR into a human egg at the same time. CRISPR then literally slices the target defect from the DNA. There are other ways to edit genes but they are generally imprecise and time-consuming. Earlier attempts to edit DNA in human embryos had resulted in mutations elsewhere in the embryos’ DNA. CRISPR, in contrast, is both accurate and efficient which is why the scientific community is all excited about it.

The Oregon scientists’ achievement was truly ground-breaking because it was the first time this gene-editing tool has been tested on clinical-quality human embryos. Earlier attempts at altering DNA using CRISPR had used embryos with such severe genetic defects that they were not viable to be developed into babies in the first place.

In contrast, Mitalipov and his team had used viable embryos created from the sperm of volunteer men who had the genetic mutation they wanted to fix. Had these repaired embryos been allowed to develop and eventually implanted into volunteer women’s uteruses, they would have resulted in babies born without the heart-disease genetic mutation.

Although none of the embryos was allowed to develop beyond an early stage, this breakthrough gives hope that many other diseases could be edited out through the use of CRISPR technology and that in the not-too-distant future we could rid society of many of the diseases that afflict humankind, such as cancer, ALS, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Of course not all diseases are genetic in nature. Vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever are transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and various other insects. They too could be potentially eliminated by engineering genetically-altered mosquitoes, ticks and so on that can’t transmit the parasites that cause such diseases.

CRISPR can also be used to create designer crops. Although some people are against genetically-modified food, gene editing can be used to create new varieties of plants that are pest resistant, drought resistant and contain more nutrients. This can be a major weapon to fight the war against malnutrition, which still afflicts many children in third world countries.

So far, so good right? It’s hard to argue against the medical and agricultural benefits of gene editing. But like all other technology, it can also be a double-edged sword. Any technology can be abused or simply used for less-than-noble purposes.

In a fix

One of the big ethical questions that genetic experts are debating over is whether gene editing should be restricted to somatic editing or whether germline editing should also be allowed (and if it’s the latter, what’s the limit to it?).

Somatic editing refers to changing the genes in affected somatic cells only. Such changes can’t be passed on to future generations. In contrast, germline editing results in changes in the genome, which means the changes are hereditable and can be passed on to future generations.

A beneficial change like the kind that the Oregon scientists achieved would result in a baby that no longer has such a mutation in its genes. Its future offspring would not have such a mutation either.

Here’s where the double-edged sword comes into play. If mistakes are made that results in some unforeseen new diseases, these too would be hereditable and passed along to future generations.

But even if the science of it can be perfected to the point that mistakes can be eliminated, and we can safely and accurately edit and fix any genes we want, there’s the philosophical question of what type of traits should we be allowed to fix?

No one would seriously argue against fixing debilitating ailments but what about things like short-sightedness? It’s not really a disease but it’s something that would be nice to correct. Perhaps that should be allowed. But if we go down that road, how about correcting for height or obesity or looks or IQ? Should parents be allowed to edit the genes of their babies so that they have the best genetic advantages that technology can offer?

This slippery slope can easily lead to kiasu parents opting for designer babies that are perfect in looks and intelligence. Just look at the proliferation of books and enrichment programmes designed to make children the best that they can be. If parents could dispense with enrichment classes and simply custom order ideal genetic traits for their kids, is there any doubt there would be some — or perhaps many — who would do just that?

While it’s probably decades before creating designer kids is technically feasible, the progress that scientists have had with CRISPR indicates that it’s just a matter of time before science fiction like Gattaca becomes reality.

Perfect imperfections

The late great film critic Roger Ebert summed up this situation best in his review of Gattaca where he pondered upon this very question:

“When parents can order ‘perfect’ babies, will they? Would you take your chances on a throw of the genetic dice, or order up the make and model you wanted? How many people are prepared to buy a car at random from the universe of all available cars? That’s how many, I suspect, would opt to have natural children. Everybody will live longer, look better and be healthier in the Gattacan world. But will it be as much fun?”

He’s got a good point there. Life as we know it is far from perfect but it’s the imperfections in the world around us that gives us the variety that makes life so interesting. Watch Gattaca and you will know exactly what I mean.

Still, it seems like it’s inevitable that designer babies will become a reality, and quite possibly in our lifetime. The core technology to do it is already here. You might be surprised to know that basic CRISPR kits are actually available online at affordable prices, allowing anyone to edit bacteria genes if they are so inclined to try. (You can go to www.the-odin.com/diy-crispr-kit and buy a set for US$159/RM680).

Oregon’s Mitalipov is cognisant of the criticism of scientists trying to play God and he maintains that gene editing should be used for medical purposes only. “I don’t think I’m playing God,” he told National Public Radio in an interview. “We have the intelligence to understand diseases, eliminate suffering. And that’s what I think is the right thing to do.”

It’s the right thing to do. The fact that a certain technology can be a double-edged sword should not be a reason to reject it. The ability to edit genes has the potential to cure many genetic illnesses and allow people to live longer, healthier lives. There’s practically no area of medical science that it will not enhance. And it could lead to the elimination of world hunger as crops become more nutritious and bountiful. It’s a technology that must be embraced.

Sunday
Aug202017

The future of e-book

With many other analogue media going digital, it was naturally assumed that books would follow suit sooner or later. It certainly looked that way shortly after Amazon’s Kindle was launched 10 years ago.

Sales were brisk and growing solidly year by year, at least initially. But as of late sales figures haven’t been so good. The US Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17 per cent drop in sales of consumer e-books while physical book revenues increased by 8 per cent.

Books are really the last man standing — the only media platform where analogue is growing while digital is declining. That’s not the case with movies, TV shows, music, newspapers and magazines. For some reason, when it comes to books people seem to still like print.

That’s certainly the case in Malaysia where e-books never really ever took off. There’s neither much demand nor supply for e-books. In this chicken-and-egg situation, something needs to be done to break this vicious cycle or e-books will forever be a non-starter.

FORMAT WAR

When any technology is new, there’s always a format war. Back when video tapes were new, there was the famous VHS vs Betamax war. Later there was the Blu-Ray vs HD DVD war. Digital music also had multiple formats although in the end it was MP3 that won out. Computer systems had Microsoft vs Apple. Phone operating systems also have their iOS vs Android war.

Format wars are common. And so it was with e-books. Amazon was (and still is) the 800-pound gorilla in the e-books game so it was able to impose its own proprietary format called Kindle. The rest of the world opted to go with the ePub format (ePub2 for static content and ePub3 for interactive and multimedia content). These were the two primary formats though there are others.

For the past decade, if you were serious about e-books you’d have to make them available as Kindle books or ePub books if you wanted online retailers to carry your title. Amazon only accepted Kindle-formatted books while distributors like Ingram, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and even Apple’s iStore all took variations of the ePub format.

The major players’ persistence in sticking to these formats has actually hindered the progress of e-books. Kindle’s basic format and the corresponding ePub2 format are designed for novels or very text-heavy books. If a book has a lot of graphics or pictures, these formats don’t work well for it. That’s because the text is designed to be flowable.

When you have a lot of images, you want the layout to be fixed, not flowable. But to make a Kindle or ePub2 book fixed format isn’t an easy thing to do and the cost of having it done by specialist service providers is remarkably high.

So while romance novels and other text-heavy books have taken off as e-books, books with lots of images have not.

E-books also brought with it the promise of interactivity and multimedia. Amazon’s Kindle Fire 8 (KF8) and ePub3 are two formats that facilitate that. But these two formats require heavy doses of programming and isn’t something a typical graphic designer can handle. Is it any surprise that very few e-books are actually interactive? The dream of interactive, multimedia e-books remains largely just that: a dream.

We’ve all seen pilot projects and proofs-of-concept e-books with all kinds of gimmicks embedded in them but just because something can be done doesn’t mean it’s easy or cheap to do so. In the case of interactive multimedia e-books, it’s both difficult and cost-prohibitive.

GOOD OL' FASHIONED PDF

There are alternative formats out there. Some independent e-book publishers have dispensed with Kindle or ePub for static e-books and have instead adopted good-old-fashioned PDF as their preferred format. It doesn’t offer a lot of the features that Kindle and ePub do but PDF’s super easy to make. And that’s its winning point.

There are also many PDF-hosting services such as ISSUU (www.issuu.com) and Publitas (www.publitas.com) which allow you to present your PDF as an e-book where you can flip the pages. They even come equipped with sound that mimics the turning of a page.

PDF allows you to embed video content but it’s not really the best platform for that. There are many online e-book services that do offer truly interactive platforms though. Joomag (www.joomag.com) is one of them. If you create an e-book using this platform, you’ll be able to offer not only audio and video clips very easily, but also animation, photo slideshows and galleries that change pictures automatically.

It should be noted that Joomag’s interactive magazines have to be viewed online. If you want to read the e-book offline, you can download it as a PDF but then the interactive elements wouldn’t work. To experience these e-books fully, you need to view them online. That’s the main downside to this platform. You can’t really download a fully functional version of the e-book.

But do readers really require a downloaded copy of an e-book if it’s available in all its glory online all the time? If you look at movies, TV shows and music, today’s generation of young people seem to actually prefer streaming.

I come from an era where being able to download music was considered radical. Today’s generation finds downloading old-fashioned. They prefer to stream their songs. The same with movies: Why bother to download a show when you can watch it online?

Why not with books too? As long as the book is always available online, why do you need to download it? The answer is that you don’t. Readers generally don’t care about formats. They just want something that works. What’s important is that the content is accessible to them when they want it.

While it might not yet be time to tell authors and publishers to ditch the Kindle or ePub formats, it certainly makes sense for them to seriously look at making their books available in other kinds of formats.

The other thing that readers want is low prices or ideally, free. If consumers are reluctant to pay for e-books — maybe because there’s already so much free content online — it doesn’t make sense to go against their wishes.

TRYING SOMETHING NEW

Perhaps the business model of selling e-books needs to be changed to a free model that’s funded by advertising or sponsorship. In other words, publishers should stop trying to make money directly from consumers who are reluctant to pay but instead get organisations and corporations who wish to reach the target demographic of a particular title.

For example, a car brand might be interested in sponsoring an e-book about defensive driving. A housing developer that specialises in green homes would probably be interested in sponsorship of an e-book about how to make your home more energy-efficient. A diaper manufacturer might want to support an e-book on baby care.

This would take books closer to the terrestrial radio and TV model which is free broadcast paid for by advertisers. Even newspapers and magazines survive mainly on advertising, although they do charge a nominal price for their products.

Books traditionally are sold at full price and are neither subsidised nor sponsored. But why not? Consumers would love it and advertisers would have another digital platform to work with.

If a publisher wants to really try some out-of-the-box ideas, they can even consider making e-books a conduit for e-commerce activities or lead generation for sales of products or services. In other words, the e-books are free and money is made from commissions from e-commerce or lead generation sales.

Albert Einstein supposedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If e-books aren’t taking off despite a decade of trying the same old format and same old business model, it’d be insane for publishers not to try something new.

Sunday
Aug132017

Do smartwatches have a future?

The hype over smartwatches reached fever pitch three years ago, with plenty of industry and consumer buzz over the Pebble watch and the impending release of the Apple Watch. Today, few people even bother to wear a watch and even fewer have a smartwatch.

WHAT HAPPENED?

The challenge smartwatches had from the start had to do with two key areas. Firstly, there’ the issue of its small screen. As mobile phones got bigger and bigger, people got used to the idea of a large screen to interface with. But watch screens have serious limitations when it comes to how large they can be before it starts looking ridiculous.

Secondly, smartwatches are not standalone devices but are dependent on mobile phones for connectivity and thus, functionality. If you want to go jogging with your smartwatch, you have to also bring your phone along if you want to be alerted of messages or to stream some music.

These two challenges — the small screen and the reliance on a phone — naturally begged the question what utility can a smartwatch offer that we can’t already get from a mobile phone? Anything that a smartwatch can do, a smartphone can do better. So why would you need a smartwatch? The answer is you don’t. And that’s why the smartwatch industry is in a funk.

Pebble, the company that started the whole smartwatch craze couldn’t survive on its own and had to be bought up by Fitbit. Motorola and Jawbone have stopped making smartwatches. Fitbit and Samsung, both of which initially had great hopes for smartwatches, have barely made any impact in the market. Even poorer performing is the Android Wear operating system for smartwatches, which Google licences out to various watch brands.

There’s really only one player in town that has made any kind of impact: Apple. And even then, it’s arguable that the appeal of its smartwatch is not the fact that it’s a smartwatch but that it’s a watch made by Apple, a brand with super devout fans.

According to an industry report by research firm Canalys released earlier this year, 49 per cent of smartwatches sold in 2016 were made by Apple; 17 per cent by Fitbit; and 15 per cent by Samsung.

EVOLVING TO STAY ALIVE

Let’s look at the top players in the smartwatch space and see how they’re evolving in their bid to revive interest in this sector. Apple is doing two things differently. Firstly, it’s going back to basics when it comes to its Apple Watch functionality. Gone are the aspirations for it to be a smart device that runs all kinds of apps. Instead, it’s now focusing on two core features: message notifications and fitness tracking. That’s a smart move because frankly, that’s all people would really expect of their smart watches. They don’t want to run 101 different apps on a device where the screen is so small.

The other thing Apple is reportedly doing is equipping its watches with mobile network capabilities. This will give it Internet capabilities without the need to have an iPhone nearby. Then it would be possible to receive messages and to stream music without the need to be connected to a phone. That would make quite a lot of difference. While this feature alone might not necessarily be a game changer, it will make the device more independent and not a complementary device for the smartphone.

Fitbit has just released its second-quarter earnings report and sales of its watches are up 14 per cent sequentially from the first quarter of 2017. But that’s not necessarily good news. The amount is actually down 40 per cent year-on-year from the second quarter of 2016. As a result, the company reported a net loss of US$58.2 million (RM249million). So, it’s not in good shape even though it’s number two in the smartwatch space.

As mentioned earlier, Fitbit had bought smartwatch pioneer, Pebble, and is utilising that company’s software to bolster the functionality of its smartwatch. So, as Apple is narrowing its focus from an all-out app-centric device to something designed for message notification and fitness tracking, Fitbit is doing the exact opposite and trying to be more like what the Apple Watch was.

Fitbit CEO James Park told online tech publication, The Verve, that the company’s upcoming smartwatch will have an app platform and that it will be rolling out a software development kit (SDK) along with a select number of apps from specific partners. The SDK will eventually be available to all developers.

Google is a smartphone player too through its Android Wear operating system. While it makes its own smartphone —called The Pixel — it’s not really bothered to make its own smartwatch. Instead, it just licences out the operating system to various established and non-established watch brands.

Fossil and Tag Heuer are two established brands that make watches with the Android Wear operating system but their sales numbers are so small they hardly make a blip on the smartwatch radar screen. Meanwhile, some non-traditional watch brands like Motorola and Huawei seem to have lost interest in Android Wear. The fact that Google itself is not making its own branded smartwatch speaks volumes.

FUTURE OF SMARTWATCHES

In looking at all these developments, what can we expect for the future of smartwatches? I don’t think smartwatches will ever become a big device category on its own. People just aren’t wearing watches like they used to.

It will most likely be a nice-to-have rather than must-have device that some people will choose to wear — some for fashion purposes and some for fitness tracking but not really for telling the time because you can get that just by glancing at your phone.

Direct connectivity to mobile networks will probably become a standard feature. Once Apple introduces this, every other player will have to follow. As long as the smartwatch is seen as a device that complements your mobile phone, its sales will be limited. Having direct connectivity means that it’s possible to receive messages and stream music while you’re exercising, which may make the device attractive for fitness-conscious consumers because it means you don’t have to bring your phone with you when you exercise.

Over time, the phrase “smartwatch” will disappear and people will just call them watches — just like how nobody really calls a smartphone by that name anymore. We just call it a mobile phone or hand-phone because all phones are smartphones these days. And that’s probably what will happen to smartwatches too although unlike the smartphone, they will be far from ubiquitous.

Sunday
Aug062017

Is AI a danger to humankind?

The term “Artificial Intelligence” (or AI) tends to conjure up images of killer robots in movies like The Terminator, Blade Runner and Avengers: Age of Ultron. All these movies warn of the dangers AI poses to humanity but it’s the Avengers movie that really captures the fear that some technology and scientific luminaries have warned us about. In that movie Ultron, a sentient robot created by the Tony Stark (Ironman) character, concludes that in order to save Earth, it has to eradicate humans.

This is exactly the kind of thing that Tesla’s Elon Musk, who’s a bit of a Tony Stark-like figure, has been warning for years. In 2014, he famously likened the unregulated development of AI as akin to “summoning the demon” which cannot be controlled.

If you think his views are alarmist, you should know he’s far from alone. Physicist Stephen Hawking has also warned about the potential dangers of AI. “I believe there’s no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer,” Hawking said. “It therefore follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence — and exceed it.”

Not only that, he fears that AI robots could re-design themselves at an ever-increasing rate and that humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, wouldn’t be able to compete and would eventually be superseded by the AI agents.

Both Musk and Hawking are members of the board of advisors for The Future of Life (FLI) Institute which lists four existential threats to humans. These are nuclear weapons, biotechnology, climate change, and last but not least: artificial intelligence.

In 2015, FLI launched its AI Safety Research programme —funded primarily by a donation from Musk — whose purpose is to finance researchers and institutions to initiate projects that will help ensure artificial intelligence stay safe and beneficial to humanity.

Alarm bells ringing

Just last month, Musk warned about AI again, this time to a gathering of US governors. He said: “I have exposure to the most cutting-edge AI. I think people should be really concerned about it. I keep sounding the alarm bell, but you know, until people see robots going down the streets killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal. I think we should be really concerned about AI.”

Musk, no fan of regulation, feels that AI is one sector that does need regulation. “AI is a rare case where I think there should be proactive regulation instead of reactive. I think by the time we’re reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late. Normally, the way regulations are set up is that a whole bunch of bad things happen, there’s a public outcry, and then after many years, the regulatory agencies are set up to regulate that industry.”

Musk went on to say: “There’s a bunch of opposition from the companies who don’t like being told what to do by regulators, and it takes forever. That, in the past has been bad, but not something which represented a fundamental risk to the existence of civilisation. AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of the human civilisation. In a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs, or bad food were not. They were harmful to a set of individuals within society of course, but they were not harmful to society as a whole. AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilisation, and I don’t think people really appreciate that.”

This view is one that’s famously echoed by Hawking, who says that while AI could lead to the eradication of disease and poverty and the conquest of climate change, it could also bring about all sorts of things we don’t like such as autonomous weapons, economic disruption and machines that develop a will of their own, in conflict with humanity. “In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We don’t yet know which.”

Alternative view

One tech entrepreneur who holds the opposite view of Musk and Hawking is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who’s very bullish on AI. Last month, he conducted a Facebook Livestream where he took questions from the public and one of the topics touched upon was AI.

Zuckerberg said: “I have pretty strong opinions on this. I’m really optimistic. I think you can build things, and the world gets better. But with AI especially, I’m really optimistic, and I think that people who are naysayers and kind of try to drum up these doomsday scenarios are... I just don’t understand it, it’s really negative. And, in some ways I think it’s pretty irresponsible. Because in the next five to 10 years, AI is going to deliver so many improvements in the quality of our lives.”

In his livestream, Zuckerberg highlighted some of the ways in which AI can keep people safe, such as helping to diagnose diseases more accurately and enhancing the safety of travel through self-driving cars. In contrast to Musk, he doesn’t believe in purposefully slowing down the development of AI. “I have a hard time wrapping my head around that because if you’re arguing against AI, then you’re arguing against safer cars that aren’t going to have accidents. And, you’re arguing against being able to diagnose people when they’re sick. I just don’t see how, in good conscience, some people can do that.”

In response, Musk, whose company is in the business of building self-driving cars, replied in a tweet: “I’ve talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited.”

So, who’s right: Musk or Zuckerberg? Actually the two of them are talking about two different aspects of AI. So, it’s like comparing apples with oranges. Zuckerberg is talking about using AI for very specific purposes, for example in the medical line or transportation field. Musk is talking about what’s called artificial general intelligence, which is more like the type of AI you see in movies. He’s not talking about the ability to crunch massive amounts of data in order to fulfil a specific task but about systems that have the ability to plan, create and even imagine — something pretty close to achieving sentience or consciousness.

Musk fears that this would happen if AI development is unregulated but many scientists say that we’re still far from coming even close to that. No doubt, computers have been shown to beat human players in chess and the game of Go (an ancient Eastern game of strategy). But even their programmers will concede that those are feats of raw computing power rather than intelligence.

Importance of a ‘kill’ switch

Interestingly though, something happened in the Facebook AI Research Lab (FAIR) in June that demonstrated how potentially smart computers can become. FAIR researchers were stunned to find its AI agents or “chatbots” had developed their own language — without any human input — to make communication more efficient.

English is a rich language that evolved organically over the centuries and apparently, Facebook’s chatbot system found that some phrases in English weren’t necessary for communication. So, it diverged from its basic training in English and proceeded to develop a language that sounds like gibberish to humans but could be easily understood by other AI agents or chatbots.

Facebook decided to pull the plug on this new language and had its researchers reprogramme the chatbots to use normal English. This seems to be the sensible thing to do but if programmes are able to communicate with each other through self-developed languages that make them more efficient, isn’t that a good thing?

Arguably it is but if left unfettered, there’s the real risk that the AI-generated language could become so complex that at some point the programmers might no longer be able to figure out what the programmes are saying to each other. One doesn’t need to be a science fiction movie buff to see the dangers of that.

Perhaps the single most important thing to learn from this Facebook chatbot episode is that it’s always important to have an “off” switch that can’t be over-ridden by the AI system. If Tony Stark had built something like that into Ultron, we wouldn’t have had an Avengers movie. But in the real world, a kill switch is something absolutely necessary as we continue to develop smarter and smarter computers. I’m sure both Zuckerberg and Musk would be in agreement with that point.