At Japan-Seattle A.I. Meetup, Caution Leavens Tech Optimism

The hype around artificial intelligence continues to inflate, even as technologies lumped under that broad and ill-defined heading begin to deliver real results. Meanwhile, there is a growing chorus asking technologists to proceed with caution—not so much because of fears stoked by Hollywood depictions of a malevolent computer intelligence out to destroy humanity, but rather over real concerns about the technology’s misuse by humans against each other.

Among those is Japan’s consul general in Seattle, Yoichiro Yamada, who on Wednesday urged a group of technology and business leaders gathered at his official residence for the kickoff of a Japan-Seattle A.I. Innovation Meetup to be “mindful of the two edges of this very powerful sword called A.I.”

Representatives of Japanese corporations including Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Konica, Toto, NTT Data, and Dentsu Group, gathered at the ornate mansion overlooking downtown Seattle to hear from local companies, many of which are focused on A.I. and related technologies. The event was part of an ongoing international trade effort organized by Innovation Finders Capital and the Washington State Department of Commerce that helped 11 companies pitch to potential customers and investors in Tokyo earlier this summer. Japan is Washington state’s second-largest export market, and third-largest bilateral trading partner, with more than $13 billion in annual business, according to Commerce director Brian Bonlender.

Local startup participants Wednesday included Taqtile, Fastdata, CuraCloud, Emergent Machines, and IOT World Labs.

The entrepreneurs, in their five- to seven-minute pitches—summarized for the audience in Japanese by Innovation Finders co-founder Tom Sato—focused mainly on the upsides of technology: How new architectures and graphics processing unit chips will deliver on the promise of real-time insights buried in the unfathomable oceans of data corporations are amassing; how augmented reality will help extend human capabilities to address worker shortages in areas such as infrastructure maintenance; and how machine learning can help radiologists, network operators, and IT security teams be more productive.

With the pitches made, Consul General Yamada addressed the group before breaking open a sake cask with Bonlender in a kagamiwari ceremony. (The two are pictured, above.)

Yamada spoke of the benefits of ubiquitous Internet connectivity and how A.I. is making life “more and more effortless.

“We might see pizza delivered through [the] window of our apartment on the 10th floor by a drone. We will soon transfer money online using face recognition, and it is already possible in China.

“These technologies are exciting and enticing, sure. But I don’t want to see the picture of a careless, sparsely clad top actress taken by such a drone and distributed on the SNS (social networking services). I don’t want the drone to take a picture of my apartment, which might reveal whom I meet and what books I read. I don’t want my government to use all the cameras in the town to observe whom I meet and where I go. If all such data becomes available to a dictatorial government, it means the death of freedom.

“In the novel 1984, there is a device called the telescreen through which the Big Brother watches every movement in the house. You know that Mr. Mark Zuckerberg will cover the camera of his computer when he appeared on the TV. He could hide the camera of his computer, but in 1984, you cannot switch off the telescreen. And if a Brave New World is to come, I would rather live as a savage than live as a mind-controlled Alpha Plus, because I cherish my freedom.

“Our democracy is perhaps the best guarantee that A.I. will not be used for the control of man by man, but we already see that things we read online are analyzed by computers and news and information is supplied to us on that basis. The computers, or the persons behind it, steer the information we have and even judgements we make. Some governments control the computers to feed information to watch the people and to arrest dissidents. Unfortunately, it is already a reality.

“I might be called a tech-shy person with these words, but I once worked in the communist Russia in the 1980s, and I do have these fears. It is important to know in whose hands the powerful tools will fall, and for what purposes they might be used.

“I was impressed by the software and products in the presentation of the past one hour. They promise so much for the future. And I believe that the top tech persons of the two democracies, Japan and the United States, are mindful of the two edges of this very powerful sword called A.I. I hope that they will lead the world not just in technologies but in ethics of their application. With this optimistic note, I welcome again all the distinguished guests today.”

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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