Thursday, December 8, 2011

An interview with Sebastian Thrun

Here's an interview with Sebastian Thrun. He's one of the professors running the current online Introduction to AI course, and a co-author of Probabilistic Robotics. I think that the implementation of Monte Carlo Localisation within ROS is based upon the description of the algorithm from that book.

I'm not a very enthusiastic driver myself, so I hope that within the next couple of decades it will become possible to get into a car and just select the destination, then not have to be concerned about the details of manual driving.

Conversations such as the above are ok up to a point, although there are some confusions and omissions along the way. The familiar standard narrative about technology is wheeled out once again, with the talk about the transition from agrarianism to industrialism. Although this transition undoubtedly did take place in more or less the manner described this doesn't mean that a similar transition is occurring today. In fact the current data suggests the opposite, with employment rising in low skilled jobs and stagnant or falling in higher skilled ones within newer high technology or software-related industries.

There is also the question of the use of AI to help resolve social problems at a political level, and unfortunately here I think the responses from Thrun and Diamandis were weak. It's not the case that political elites (governments and their various agencies) aren't interested in data collection or analytics, which typically involves some amount of AI. Governments obsessively collect and analyze data, using it to guide policy in a wide variety of ways. It's just that this activity is rarely conveyed in any intelligible form to the general populace, and almost never features within popular debate. Recent examples of use of AI by governments would be eigenbehavior analysis of entire nations via mobile phone location logs, drone aircraft, persona management, "screening" at national borders and of civil service employees, and so on.

From what I've seen, Thrun and Norvig's online AI course has been pretty good so far - although definitely rough around the edges - and I hope that this is the way that higher education goes in future. However, there is also the question of over-production of highly educated elites (people with good education and high expectations about their future status), which according to things I've been reading more recently tends to lead to political instability.  So I don't think it's the case that we're facing an inevitable exponential march towards a Star Trek style future, as many of the Singularitarians seem to assume.  The future is likely to be complex, and will include strange loops, paradigmatic phase changes and all sorts of unexpected challenges.

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