John Markoff

New York Times science writer

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON September 29, 2015

Discussion

John Markoff@markoff · reporter
I’m John Markoff and I write for the science section of the New York Times. I have been at the Times since 1988 and covered Silicon Valley from 1992 until 2010. I have written about computer security and more recently focused on artificial intelligence and robotics. I wrote the first article describing the World Wide Web in December 1993. Machines of Loving Grace is a book about the impact of robots and AI.
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
Okay, let me ask the other BIG, HAIRY question related to AI. Should robots and AI systems be given enough autonomy so they can decide to kill humans in a battlefield or law enforcement setting? And how will we prevent some country from deciding to deploy such autonomous "killer" systems? We are already halfway there with some of the drone systems.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@mikenelson The autonomous weapon question may be the most significant one we face. I think we should do whatever is possible to NOT delegate killing decisions to machines. I think we are already on the verge of a dramatic arms race and that it is likely to accelerate. That said, I believe it is possible to limit the deployment of such systems in the same way we have limited CBW and nuclear weapons.
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
@markoff @mikenelson I definitely agree with your first sentence. But, CBW bans didn't work real well in Assad's Syria and Saddam's Iraq.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Hey @markoff - Welcome! What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have around AI? P.S. loved your a16z podcast episode.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@eriktorenberg I also think that we have this amazing capacity to anthropomorphize our interactions with almost everything including machines. It is not clear that we need to design these systems to be human like, but that seems to be where the technology is headed.
Hash_tag_jeff@jeffumbro · Book Marketing and PR - get in touch
Hi @markoff - can you tell me where your thinking differs from folks like Ray Kurzweil or Jerry Kaplan?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
let me start at the beginning with my reaction to Jerry Kaplan and Ray Kurzweil. My biggest difference is that the evidence for continuing "acceleration" just isn't there.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
Moore's Law is supposed to mean that computers get faster faster and cheaper faster. Those aspects of the basic technology of Silicon Valley are slowing today. As a result I don't see any chance of the "Singularity" arriving on time. Or at least when Ray Kurzweil has predicted.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@jeffumbro Jerry Kaplan and I differ on how disruptive the current wave of technologies is. He believes that we are headed for a "jobs-apocalypse, while I think that there is little evidence in the developed world that automation will cause huge amounts of structural unemployment.
Dylan La Com@dylanlacom
Thanks for doing this AMA @markoff! Can you share any specific AI or deep learning research that you're particularly excited about?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
There is machine learning/deep learning research everywhere these days! One interesting research effort that I have been watching is the work that Pieter Abeel's group has been doing on dextrous manipulation at UC Berkeley.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
They have pushed in the direction of robot arms beginning to finally match human abilities to pick and place objects.
Corley@corleyh · COO @ Product Hunt
Hi @markoff thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Do you remember the moment you fell in love with science? And which came first, love of science or love of writing? And final question - what is your tip for making complicated concepts easy to understand?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@corleyh wow. so for me, it was all about science fiction first, that led to a love of astronomy. I realized in my freshman year of college that my math skills would never be good enough and so I moved on to other interests. But it was astronomy first. I had a 4" reflector telescope that I was in love with when I was a kid.
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
And do you worry that much of what we read in 5 to 10 years will be written by robots? I've seen some pretty good sports journalism done by algorithms.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@mikenelson Actually I don't worry very much about machine journalism. I hated writing earnings reports and I'm glad that machines are doing that. Also I'm skeptical about your point that there is good sports journalism. I think what they've done so far has been to wrap natural language around box scores. When are there are going to be robot interviewers? that's what I want to know! :)
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@markoff who are some of the thinkers you most admire in the AI space?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@bentossell Well, he is an economist, but I would suggest David Autor at MIT. Also I just read David Mindell's new book on designing robots. (He is an MIT roboticist). A very influential book that I read decades ago was called the Micro Millennium, by Christopher Evans. It is what convinced me that computing technology would change the world. I also respect Janier Lanier a good deal.
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
You could write a book on encryption (and just recycle all those New York Times articles you wrote on Clipper Chip back in the mid-90s!!)
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
@mikenelson When it comes to the Obama White House and encryption, it's deja vu all over again, isn't it?? http://thehill.com/blogs/congres...
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
Alex Carter@alexcartaz · Operations @ 60dB. Ex-PH Podcasts 😻
Hi @markoff! Many prominent technologists, including Elon Musk, have grave concerns about the dangers of AI in the near future. Are you concerned? What scenario do you think is most likely to negatively impact civilization as a result of advances in AI? Thanks!
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@alexcartaz I disagree with Elon Musk on the rate of progress, but I believe he has raised important issues about autonomous systems. There are many risks associated with disconnecting machine decision making from human control, short of self aware machine
Andreas Klinger@andreasklinger · Tech at Product Hunt 💃
@markoff You covered SV for a long time - seen by now several generations of technology innovators I assume you heard the bubble a few times by now ;) 1) What is something every generation gets wrong / is ignorant to - where do we repeat our mistakes? 2) How did the tech scene as a global scene change from your POV in the last decades? 3) Is there something that neither the public nor SV gets right about (eg) AI? (eg i am always amazed how simple many underlying techniques are below big terms) and of course… 4) who is the most prominent thinker in the AI space you disagree with and why? (ok that got more questions than expected)
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@andreasklinger We do seem to forget that Silicon Valley and San Francisco before it have been boom and bust economies FOREVER. I don't know about a "bubble," but this current wave is being driven by investment and I don't believe it will sustain itself indefinitely. On the "tech scene" I'm still waiting for a new platform technology to emerge outside of the Valley. I thought Europe was ahead of us in mobile technologies until the advent of the iPhone, and I expect that something will come with global reach in the future.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@andreasklinger I think that we need to understand that the field of AI has repeatedly overpromised and under delivered since its inception. I guess I most disagree with Ray Kurzweil, although I admire him tremendously. I think there is a real danger in making assertions about the rate of progress. They have reached a level of religious conviction in Silicon Valley. I remain a skeptic.
Andreas Klinger@andreasklinger · Tech at Product Hunt 💃
@markoff awesome response - Asia (esp china/korea) might become the player that moves ahead in mobile. Their innovation is progressing at fast pace Their consumption is already different and ahead ours (even old concepts like mobile commerce are barely existing in US/Europe but common in Asia)
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
HUGE Thanks to @markoff for taking the time to chat with us today.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@eriktorenberg you're welcome!
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
Thanks for a great conversation. I've got your book--now I just need another LONG plane ride so I have time to read it.
Hash_tag_jeff@jeffumbro · Book Marketing and PR - get in touch
What has been the most interesting technology trend you've seen in your nearly 30 years covering the subject?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
I think our predictions about artificial intelligence have generally overstated the rate of progress in the field.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
There have been recent dramatic advances in machine perception, but if you want "ground truth" on where we are with respect to autonomous robots, watch the outtakes from the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The machines are still very limited.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
In terms of promising technologies, I'm fascinated by advances in augmented reality, and believe that it is possible that it will redefine personal computing. But perhaps not in the immediate future.
Tom Richards@thricha · Product Manager @ Facebook ex Intercom
Hi John, I'd love to know what you think about the involvement of AI in our relationships with one another and with businesses will feel like in the coming future.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@thricha The research being done to build "conversation systems," AI techniques for conversing with humans are advancing rapidly. I wrote about a Microsoft experiment in China recently called "Xiaoice" that is very important. They were able to mine the social web in China for Question and Answer pairs and have made real progress in human like conversation.
Tom Richards@thricha · Product Manager @ Facebook ex Intercom
@markoff @thricha Awesome. Based upon the idea of this interaction having some sort of purpose (other than emotional connection) do you think AI systems are in a place to be able to comprehend complex situations and perform complex actions? Is the return of conversation the next goal?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@thricha my general sense is that while we have made real breakthroughs in perception, there has been little fundamental progress in cognition or in decision making. That is, decision making systems are still largely rule-based. I have been following the debate about whether machine learning techniques will be applicable to cognition and I guess I'm still waiting for evidence.
Tom Richards@thricha · Product Manager @ Facebook ex Intercom
@markoff @thricha Interesting! Do you believe the perceptive abilities of todays AI systems to be in a place to deal with consumer level relationships (think Facebook's M) and the level of complexities associated with this area of decision making? Or is this dream still some way off?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@thricha I actually think that this particular area will move very quickly. For example, conversational systems to provide technical support I think are easily with us in the next half decade. People already fail to see that FAQbots are not human....
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
Hi, John. Since I'm in Washington, DC, I thought I'd ask a policy/legal question. How long do you think it will be before we see law suits (especially class-action suits) filed against robots, algorithms, and their creators? In other words, will robots be held liable for errors and damage? What should/could Congress do to make sure poorly-drafted legislation and regulation get in the way of innovation?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@mikenelson Hi Mike! It seems inevitable that this will happen. I agree with you that there hasn't been a canonical AI liability lawsuit yet, but the recent events surrounding Volkswagen and the engine code for cheating indicates that software liability issues are going to be front and center from here on out. This is one of the most challenging issues presented by increasing machine autonomy. How do you assess responsibility when human control is disconnected from machine actions?
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
@markoff @mikenelson Yep, that is the BIG, HAIRY issue. When can the creator of an AI system say, "it's not my fault, the algorithm did it"? This becomes particularly real when you're relying on a machine learning system or a neural network and the data sets you used to "train" the system was incomplete or full or bogus data.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@mikenelson one thought about responsibility and neural nets in particular, is that there is some early progress in understanding the basic function of these systems, and so maybe it won't be possible to hide.
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
John, I'm glad you mentioned some of the work being done in China. I've heard a number of people comment on has fast the Chinese are making progress in a number of AI-related areas (esp. augmented reality). Are there other countries that are making fast progress?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@mikenelson I am fascinated that Europe has committed billions of euros both in modeling the human brain and in building elder care robots. It will be interesting to see if they get a competitive advantage from that research funding.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Hi John, what first made you get into journalism? What was it about science and technology in particular that made you most want to cover that?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@ems_hodge This is a long time ago. I grew up reading I.F. Stone and early on I read several biographies of Lincoln Steffans. So it was an interest in investigative reporting that originally sparking my interest, which was true for many of my generation because of Watergate.
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@ems_hodge I was drawn into covering Silicon Valley largely because I was intrigued by the question of what would the the impact of the microprocessor be on society?
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · PMM @Twitter // Previously @ProductHunt
To an outsider, Silicon Valley may seem like a "tech fantasy land" - having been there from the onset of the tech boom, what is a lesser known fact/observation about the REAL Silicon Valley?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@andrewmettinger I think that Silicon Valley believes its more innovative than it actually is. There have been a few fundamental ideas, like personal computing, the internet, and ubiquitous computing. The heart and soul of the Valley is that it is actually an engineering culture, which often is not directly about innovation.
Michael Nelson@mikenelson
@markoff @andrewmettinger To quote Buzz Aldrin, one of the few astronauts to orbit the Moon: "You promised me trips to Mars and all we got was 140 characters."
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
Which critique of your work do you find yourself most sympatethetic to?
John Markoff@markoff · reporter
@eriktorenberg If you mean my recent work on AI, I think I am very interested in the possibility that I'm wrong on Moore's Law and that the Elon Musk's of the world are right and that we will see thinking machines soon.