“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

—  Alan Turing

Dr. Guru Banavar is the Vice President and Chief Science Officer for Cognitive Computing at IBM. He is responsible for advancing IBM’s next generation of technologies and solutions in the field of artificial intelligence (“AI”). Most recently, Dr. Banavar led the team responsible for creating new AI technologies and systems for IBM Watson, the question-answering supercomputer that recently crushed the top human contestants on Jeopardy!

Watson’s success on Jeopardy! — a gameshow designed to test the intellectually nimble human mind — may have sent ripples of anxiety through many people’s brains. If Ken Jennings, whose 74-game winning streak stands as the Jeopardy! record, can lose to a machine, what does this mean for us normal humans? Should we be concerned with the future possibility of AI? Is the Rise of the Machines upon us?

Dr. Banavar is here to put as at ease. AI anxiety taps into a characteristically human reflex to fear new technologies, contending that we should in fact be excited for about the future of AI.

“I think over the history of all the industrial revolutions we’ve gone through — and we’ve gone through multiple of them, from factories and then information technology, and now we’re getting into this age of AI —  there’s been a period of adjustment society has to go through,” Dr. Banavar says. “People have to first learn to trust the technologies that can help them…. I think the same is true for AI systems: people are wary and cautious right now, but I think that over time they’ll realize that this can actually help [them].”

The potential benefits of AI are wide-ranging. For instance, AI presents the ability to synthesize mass amounts of information, such as data related to public health concerns. This will free up scientists from some of the arduous demands of research, enabling them to dedicate their energies towards developing and strengthening the tools of healthcare. The same applies to a wide range of industries, including the world of philanthropy, financial services, and education.

In light of the mass amount of information that AI can provide us with, the need for pure answer-finding strategies and rote memorization becomes increasingly obsolete.

The number one skill we do need for the future? Dr. Banavar weighs in again: “What is most important is the ability to ask the right questions…. That is a uniquely human skill: finding the right question to ask.”

In a world where machines can analyze data and arrive at conclusions on their own, we need to make sure that the questions we’re asking machines are the right ones. Only by learning how to design the right experiment will we be able to unlock the true power of AI. The key, says Dr. Banavar, is to “incorporate [AI] into your larger decision-making process…Then you turn it into something that can work.”

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