Blog Posts from January, 2021

Bug of the Day: AI Sees Bits, Not Things

Monday, January 4th, 2021

An article that I was reading this morning was accompanied by a stock photo with an intriguing building in the background.

Students throwing their graduation caps in the air

I wanted to know where the building was, and what it was. I thought that maybe Chrome’s “Search Google for image” feature could help to locate an instance of the photo where the building was identified. That didn’t happen, but I got something else instead.

An assortment of images of migrating geese

Google Images provided me with a reminder that “machine learning” doesn’t see things and make sense of them; it matches patterns of bits to other patterns of bits. A bunch of blobby things in a variegated field? Birds in the sky, then—and the fact that there are students in their graduation gowns just below doesn’t influence that interpretation.

That reminded me of this talk by Martin Krafft:

The MIT network’s concept of a tree (called a symbol) does not extend beyond its visual features. This network has never climbed a tree or heard a branch break. It has never seen a tree sway in the wind. It doesn’t know that a tree has roots, nor that it converts carbon dioxide into oxygen. It doesn’t know that trees can’t move, and that when the leaves have fallen off in winter, it won’t recognize the tree as the same one because it cannot conclude that the tree is still in the same position and therefore must be the same tree.”

Martin Krafft, The Robots Won’t Take Away Our Jobs: Let’s Reframe the Debate on Artificial Intelligence, 14:30</p>

Then I had another idea: what if I fed a URL to the image above to Google Images? This is what I got:

Results from a Google Image search, given a link to an image

Software and machinery assist us in many ways as we’re organizing and sifting and sorting and processing data. That’s cool. When it comes to making sense of the world, drawing inferences, and making decisions that matter to people, we must continue to regard the machinery as cognitively and socially oblivious. Whether we’re processing loan applications, driving cars, or testing software, machinery can help us, but responsible, socially aware humans must remain in charge.

(A couple of friendly correspondents on Twitter have noted that the building is the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore.)