High-Profile Jitters Over AI

Also, Kroger to build automated warehouses and why weather forecasting will never be perfect.

Editor’s note: Elsewhere is a column that highlights ideas from other media platforms we believe are worth your attention.

So far, artificial intelligence has been widely viewed as a potential game changer for probing problems and making complex decisions. It’s well known, for example, that, powered by AI, DeepMind Technologies’ AlphaZero trained itself in 2017 to beat the best chess players in the world. It accomplished this feat in less than 24 hours, not by copying and tweaking the strategies of chess masters but by designing and executing new moves that others found counterintuitive.

But as AI finds its way into more and more facets of modern life, there are a lot of unknowns: How will it affect the various ways people think and interact with one another — and, more worrisome, how will it affect civilization?

In a recent Atlantic article, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher, dean of MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing, say “the changes [AI] will impose on human life will be transformative,” but not always in a good way.

For example, they note that historically, nuclear deterrence has been based on “the rationality of parties” and “the likelihood of retaliation deters attack.” But new weapons and strategies designed with AI, they worry, could turn things upside down (as AlphaZero did for chess), overwhelming existing models built on transparency and creating new levels of risk. They add that smarter and more sophisticated digital assistants and devices have minuses as well as pluses: fewer information choices for users, for instance, and less access to challenging ideas.

Although the three authors differ on how optimistic they are about AI, they all agree that, as AI becomes more ubiquitous, we need clear systems for keeping it in check. Among them: “requiring human involvement in high-stakes pattern recognition,” like reading X-rays; developing simulations to teach AI to identify ethical issues; and “auditing” AI decisions that touch on human values.

Rebooting the Supermarket

For supermarkets, the race is on to develop business models that are able to compete with the likes of Amazon and, not incidentally, widen their paper-thin profit margins. One of the most aggressive efforts to date is coming from Cincinnati-based Kroger, which operates some 2,700 supermarkets in 35 states. Eager to leverage the latest warehouse automation and robotics technology, Kroger entered into an exclusive partnership last year with Ocado Group, a British grocery retailer that has no stores, delivering orders to homes directly from its automated warehouses. In the next three years, Kroger plans to build 20 automated warehouses.

As a recent Bloomberg article by Sarah Halzack points out, getting a grip on the online grocery business, where at least some items are perishable or frozen, is considerably more complicated than other types of online retail. At one of Ocado’s grocery fulfillment centers near London, for example, some 1,000 robots scurry around a mechanical grid moving bins of groceries. The better the automated system works and the more orders it processes, the brighter the prospects of higher profits. But whether these changes can occur fast enough, says Halzack, is an open question.

Why Weather Will Always Be Uncertain

We’re getting better and better at using data to predict what’s likely to happen next, and nowhere is this truer than with weather. Throughout most of history, people really didn’t know whether it would rain or shine until the day it happened. But with the introduction of the telegraph in the United States in the mid-19th century, residents in one town could finally learn if it was raining in another town 300 miles away. Writing in The New Yorker and drawing on insights from journalist Andrew Blum’s new book, The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast, Hannah Fry, a mathematician at University College London, describes how weather forecasting has evolved — and why 100% accuracy will never be attainable.

Weather, Fry writes, “is an intricate mathematical tapestry that is far too intertwined to unpick by hand.”

A century ago, she notes, a British mathematician dreamed of a “forecast factory” where thousands of people crank out calculations related to weather conditions in different parts of the world. Fry reports that in a few years, with supercomputers, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts expects “to be able to detect high-impact events two weeks into the future.” However, she says the effects of global warming will make extremes more likely and long-range predictions more challenging.

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