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Instead of robots taking jobs, A.I. may help humans do their jobs better

Sharon Gaudin | Sept. 23, 2015
Scientists see the greatest advances coming in A.I. and human cooperation

Not so fast, though.

What if instead of a world where people queue up in unemployment lines while robots take their jobs, we look ahead to a world where robots and smart assistants help us during the work day, provide us with cleaner homes, remember friends' birthdays and even protect us in battle?

That's a world to look forward to rather than to be afraid of, said Pam Melroy, deputy director of the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

"Really interesting things are going to happen at the interception of biology and A.I.," said Melroy, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut. "There's something about human machine communication symbiosis and how humans and machines can partner well together."

Dietterich said this human/smart machine cooperation is already happening ... and with impressive results.

For example, a computer has been working to figure out the shape of a protein in three dimensions, but the work wasn't going well, Dietterich said.

Then humans began working with the computer program, and that changed. With humans working in conjunction with the computer, the solution to the 3D structure of an HIV enzyme, was found in three weeks.

"The algorithm and humans could not have done this so quickly on their own," said Dietterich. "A.I. will work its way into our lives in big ways working with people."

He said he expects this human/A.I. cooperation to eventually catch on and grow rapidly in a number of areas, such as high-speed stock trades, automated surgical assistants and autonomous weapons.

A maintenance worker, for instance, would have a smart assistant that could help diagnose a problem with a boiler, suggest ways to repair it or assist the human with the repair.

In a military setting, an enlistee would receive a personal assistant when she gets to basic training. The soldier will always keep her assistant with her so it will learn the human's strengths and weaknesses as she goes through training and into different jobs. That way the assistant can continually adapt to help the soldier as she completes different tasks and advances to higher ranks.

The idea behind a smart assistant is for the machine to learn as its human user does, so it can help with different and more complicated tasks.

This cooperation will also take shape in our personal lives.

Dietterich said we're not that far away from having automated wheelchairs that, with a voice command or gesture, will take the user to different rooms inside a home or within an office building.

Melroy agreed that smart assistants won't always come in the form of human-sized robots or digital assistants that can fit in your pocket.


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