Reading the tech press, you would be forgiven for believing that AI is going to eat pretty much every industry and job. Not a day goes by without another reporter breathlessly reporting some new machine learning product that is going to trounce human intelligence. That surfeit of enthusiasm doesn’t originate just with journalists though — they are merely channeling the wild optimism of researchers and startup founders alike.
There has been an explosion of interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning over the past few years, as the hype around deep learning and other techniques has increased. Tens of thousands of research papers in AI are published yearly, and AngelList’s startup directory for AI companies includes more than four thousands startups.
After being battered by story after story of AI’s coming domination — the singularity, if you will — it shouldn’t be surprising that 58% of Americans today are worried about losing their jobs to “new technology” like automation and artificial intelligence according to a newly released Northeastern University / Gallup poll. That fear outranks immigration and outsourcing by a large factor.
The truth though is much more complicated. Experts are increasingly recognizing that the “accuracy” of artificial intelligence is overstated. Furthermore, the accuracy numbers reported in the popular press are often misleading, and a more nuanced evaluation of the data would show that many AI applications have much more limited capabilities than we have been led to believe. Humans may indeed end up losing their jobs to AI, but there is a much longer road to go.
Another replication crisis
For the past decade or so, there has been a boiling controversy in research circles over what has been dubbed the “replication crisis” — the inability of researchers to duplicate the results of key papers in fields as diverse as psychology and oncology. Some studies have even put the number of failed replications at more than half of all papers.
The causes for this crisis are numerous. Researchers face a “publish or perish” situation where they need positive results in order to continue their work. Journals want splashy results to get more readers, and “p-hacking” has allowed researchers to get better results by massaging statistics in their favor.
Artificial intelligence research is not immune to such structural factors, and in fact, may even be worse given the incredible surge of excitement around AI, which has pushed researchers to find the most novel advances and share them as quickly and as widely as possible.