December 1, 2017

How Humans Will Beat the Machines

"An alien intelligence is heading toward us at breakneck speeds," Louis Rosenberg, CEO of Unanimous A.I. says. That alien intelligence "will challenge our position as the intellectual top dog. Many experts say it'll get here in 50 years. Some say it'll get here in 25."

Movies have depicted such a scenario since the 1920s -- science fiction fans have simultaneously eaten it up and more or less dismissed the idea. Rosenberg, on the other hand, has been worrying about a takeover for 25 years, he told an audience during one of VML's Sterling Sessions, celebrating the ad agency's 25th anniversary.

Rosenberg isn't imagining 7-foot-tall faceless beings from parts unknown. No, he's pretty sure any intelligence threat humans face will come from a lab at a tech company or top university. After all, he quipped, humans don't have the best track record when it comes to controlling their inventions.

He said that when he discusses his concern with others, he mainly hears two answers: some people say artificial intelligence can't take over the world if scientists simply put adequate controls in place; some ask, can't we just be careful? He doesn't think either method is enough to save the human race.

For a long time, Rosenberg couldn't find an answer. He asked himself: When other species are under dangerously heavy evolutionary pressure, what do they do? He considered schools of fish, swarms of bees, flocks of birds.

All of those creatures move together, think together. "They are smarter together than alone," he said.

So if humankind were to face a threat of a superior artificial intelligence, certainly one great defense would be human brainpower.

"I'm talking about forming real-time systems with feedback loops so people are interconnected so a new intelligence forms, an emergent intelligence with its own personality and intellect," he said. "I'm talking about forming a hive mind. Biologists call this 'swarm intelligence,' and it's a natural step in the evolution of most social species."

He and his scientists at Unanimous A.I. developed an algorithm and an interface that allows strangers to log in and solve a problem together; this is not crowdsourcing or voting -- nothing like that.

A large screen behind him showed a circle surrounded by tiny wiggling magnets. Each magnet represents a person participating in a Unanimous A.I. hive mind experiment. As the tiny magnets wiggle -- the motion indicates that the person behind the magnet is thinking -- they influence the progress of a glass puck from one part of the circle to another. The puck drifts toward the group's answers the way a planchette spells a word on a Ouija board.

In 2016, CBS challenged Unanimous A.I. to predict the superfecta of the Kentucky Derby using this method. Rosenberg's team collected 20 horse-racing enthusiasts -- not experts, he was quick to point out -- who succeeded pretty easily. They called all four horses in order.

It's important to note, he said, that of those 20 people, not one predicted the order accurately all alone. And if the 20 had simply voted? They would only have predicted one of the four horses.

That same year, Newsweek challenged Unanimous A.I. to predict the winners of the Academy Awards. Fifty moviegoers managed 76 percent accuracy, compared to movie experts who were only 64 percent accurate.

When and if a threat from artificial intelligence arises, it will need to be dealt with immediately; the only way to respond intelligently and effectively will be to pool our brainpower. In fact, he said, we are already facing human-made threats that need to be addressed: poverty, hunger and homelessness, for instance.

"The building blocks [of the system] are people, tapping not just our knowledge, but our values and morals and sensibilities," Rosenberg said. "The resulting super intelligence will not be alien, it'll be human, just smarter and wiser."

Louis Rosenberg spoke at VML's Sterling Sessions, an event timed to coincide with VML's 25tth anniversary, that featured national thought leaders and marketing luminaries contemplating what's next for our industry and beyond. To see more from the Sterling Sessions, visit