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Town Hall Seattle: Science Series

Town Hall’s Science series is dedicated to understanding the world around us. Whether we’re hearing from a legendary physicist or a UW graduate student, the Science series explores math, biology, chemistry, the environment, and so much more.

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Jul 29, 2022

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Thu 7/14, 2022, 7:30pm
Blaise Agüera y Arcas and Melanie Mitchell with Lili Cheng
How Close Are We to AI?



Ubi Sunt
By Blaise Agüera y Arcas




Artificial Intelligence (AI), a term first coined at a Dartmouth workshop in 1956, has seen several boom and bust cycles over the last 66 years. Is the current boom different?

The most exciting advance in the field since 2017 has been the development of “Large Language Models,” giant neural networks trained on massive databases of text on the web. Still highly experimental, Large Language Models haven’t yet been deployed at scale in any consumer product — smart/voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or the Google Assistant are still based on earlier, more scripted approaches.

Large Language Models do far better at routine tasks involving language processing than their predecessors. Although not always reliable, they can give a strong impression of really understanding us and holding up their end of an open-ended dialog. Unlike previous forms of AI, which could only perform specific jobs involving rote perception, classification, or judgment, Large Language Models seem to be capable of a lot more — including possibly passing the Turing Test, named after computing pioneer Alan Turing’s thought experiment that posits when an AI in a chat can’t be distinguished reliably from a human, it will have achieved general intelligence.

But can Large Language Models really understand anything, or are they just mimicking the superficial “form” of language? What can we say about our progress toward creating real intelligence in a machine? What do “intelligence” and “understanding” even mean? Blaise Agüera y Arcas, a Fellow at Google Research, and Melanie Mitchell, the Davis Professor of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute, take on these thorny questions in a wide-ranging presentation and discussion. The discussion will be moderated by Lili Cheng, Corporate Vice President of the Microsoft AI and Research division.

Blaise Agüera y Arcas is a VP and Fellow at Google Research, where he leads an organization working on basic research and new products in Artificial Intelligence. His team focuses on the intersection of machine learning and devices, developing AI that augments humanity while preserving privacy. One of the team’s technical contributions is Federated Learning, an approach to training neural networks in a distributed setting that avoids sending user data off-device. Blaise also founded Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence program and has been an active participant in cross-disciplinary dialogs about AI and ethics, fairness and bias, policy, and risk. He has given TED talks on Sead­ragon and Pho­to­synth (2007, 2012), Bing Maps (2010), and machine creativity (2016). In 2008, he was awarded MIT’s TR35 prize.

Melanie Mitchell is the Davis Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Her current research focuses on conceptual abstraction, analogy-making, and visual recognition in artificial intelligence systems.  Melanie is the author or editor of six books and numerous scholarly papers in the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and complex systems. Her book Complexity: A Guided Tour won the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award and was named by as one of the ten best science books of 2009. Her latest book is Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans.

Lili Cheng is a Corporate Vice President of the Microsoft AI and Research division, responsible for the AI developer platform which includes Cognitive Services and Bot Framework. Prior to Microsoft, Lili worked in Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group on the user interface research team where she focused on QuickTime Conferencing and QuickTime VR. Lili is also a registered architect, having worked in Tokyo and Los Angeles for Nihon Sekkei and Skidmore Owings and Merrill on commercial urban design and large-scale building projects. She has also taught at New York University and Harvard University.

Ubi Sunt
By Blaise Agüera y Arcas 


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