Google unveils dazzling plans and a vision for the future of AI

Google unveils dazzling plans and a vision for the future of AI

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Illustration: Aida Amer/Axios

Google’s search arm on Wednesday showcased an assortment of artificial intelligence (AI) projects it is incubating, aimed at everything from mitigating climate change to helping novelists write prose.

Why is this important: Artificial intelligence has mind-boggling potential to improve and enrich our lives – and comes with extremely disturbing risks of misuse, intrusion and malfeasance, if not developed and deployed responsibly.

Driving the news: The dozen AI projects that Google Research rolled out at a Manhattan media event are in various stages of development, with goals ranging from improving society (like better health diagnostics) to pure creativity and fun (text-to-image generation that can help you build a 3D image of a monster wearing a marzipan skirt).

On the “social good” side:

  • Monitoring forest fires: Google’s machine learning model for early detection is active in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and parts of Australia.
  • Flood forecast: A system that sent 115 million flood warnings to 23 million people in India and Bangladesh last year has since expanded to 18 additional countries (15 in Africa, plus Brazil, Colombia and Sri Lanka ).
  • Maternal Health/Ultrasound AI: Using an Android app and a wearable ultrasound monitor, nurses and midwives in the United States and Zambia are testing a system that assesses gestational age and the position of the fetus in the womb .
  • Prevention of blindness: Google’s Automated Retinal Disease Assessment (ARDA) uses AI to help healthcare professionals detect diabetic retinopathy. Over 150,000 patients have been screened by taking a picture of their eyes on their smartphone.
  • The “1,000 Languages ​​Initiative”: Google is building an AI model that will work with the world’s 1,000 most spoken languages.

On the more speculative and experimental side:

  • Self-coding robots: In a project called “Code as Policies”, robots learn to autonomously generate new code.
    • During a demonstration, Andy Zeng from Google told a robot hovering over three plastic bowls (red, blue and green) and three candies (Skittles, M&M’s and Reese’s) that I like M&M’s and that my bowl was blue. The robot placed the candy in the correct bowl, although it was not directly told to “put the M&M’s in the blue bowl”.
  • Wordcraft: Several professional writers are experimenting with Google’s AI fiction creation tool. It’s not quite ready for prime time, but you can read the stories they crafted with it here.
Demonstrations at Google Research's Artificial Intelligence press event.
On the left, Andy Zeng of Google Research showed how a robot could learn to understand terms like “Willy Wonka” as a metaphor for chocolate. On the right, Daniel Tse from Google Research shows the AI-based maternal ultrasound system he is developing. Photos: Jennifer A. Kingson

The big picture: Fears about the dark side of AI – from privacy breaches and the spread of misinformation to the loss of control over consumer data – recently prompted the White House to issue a “Bill of Human Rights”. IA” preliminary, encouraging technologists to build safeguards into their products.

  • While Google released its AI Development Principles in 2018 and other tech companies have followed suit, there is little to no government regulation.
  • Although investors have recently pulled out of AI startups, Google’s deep pockets could give it more time to develop projects that aren’t immediately profitable.

Yes, but: Google executives issued several notes of caution while showing off their products.

  • AI “can have immense social benefits” and “unleash all that creativity,” said Marian Croak, head of Google Research’s Center of Expertise on Responsible AI.
  • “But because it has such a broad impact on people, the risk involved can also be very huge. And if we don’t do it right…it can be very destructive.”

Threat level: A recent report from the Georgetown Center for Security and Emerging Technology examined how text-generating AI could “be used to power disinformation campaigns.”

  • And like Axios’ Scott Rosenberg wrote, the company is just beginning to grapple with the legal and ethical questions raised by AI’s new ability to generate text and images.

Still, there are some fun things: This summer, Google Research showed off Imagen and Parti, two AI models capable of generating photorealistic images from text prompts (like “a puppy in a nest emerging from a cracked egg”). Now they are working on text-to-video:

  • Imagen Video can create a short snippet from phrases like “a giraffe under a microwave”.
  • Phenaki is “a template for generating videos from text, with prompts that can change over time and videos that can be several minutes long,by Google search.
  • AI test kitchen is an application that demonstrates text-to-image capabilities through two games, “City Dreamer” (build cityscapes using keywords) and “Wobble” (create friendly monsters that can dance).

The bottom line: Despite recent financial headwinds, AI is moving forward, with companies such as Google positioned to serve as moral arbiters and standard setters.

  • “AI is the deepest technology we’re working on, but it’s still just the beginning,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a recorded introduction to Wednesday’s event.

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