Brain Teasers

This Robot Is a Mind Reader

The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence has transformed Pictionary into a training ground for human-compatible AI—and your sketches are the key.

By Aly Brady April 23, 2019 Published in the May 2019 issue of Seattle Met

I’m not the first person to fear artificial intelligence. I’ve seen Ex Machina; it doesn’t end well. When I heard about the latest experiment from the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (usually abbreviated as AI2), conceived to get AI communicating better with people, I was spooked. But, in the spirit of journalistic research, I played.

The project is called Iconary and it’s a take on Washington-raised Rob Angel’s 1985 board game Pictionary. Instead of teaming up to draw and guess with an old college pal, Iconary pairs you with AllenAI. Collecting data from game plays can teach AllenAI to work in collaboration with humans.

Imagine Iconary as a more complex version of a language translation system. Each play is like popping “How are you?” in English into Google Translate and receiving a French equivalent, explains AI2 lead researcher and Iconary developer Aniruddha Kembhavi. But it’s more like a dialogue: Sometimes you draw, sometimes you guess. You might start with “man walking in a park,” and break the phrase down into its most basic parts. So you draw a man and the system produces an icon. Draw a tree, another icon. This goes on until you’ve created a scene for AllenAI to guess. And it’s good at it. While I spent five minutes struggling to guess “drinking from a cup of coffee,” AllenAI got “buying a bell pepper” in a mere five seconds, despite my total lack of artistic ability. That’s around the time I began to wonder: Is there any danger here?

Os Keyes, a PhD student in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington and a Microsoft Ada Lovelace fellow, says there could be a problem. Since AI analyzes quantitative information, or numeric data, like income, you run the risk of losing nuanced human concepts, like race or cultural identity, in translation. But, Kembhavi says that we’re still in the “sandbox” or beginning stages. He imagines that one day we could have AI working with us to complete everyday tasks—a robot helping us create a grocery list and asking us what recipes we want to try—but that requires the capacity to participate in a complex conversation and the ability to adapt. AI is nowhere near a hostile takeover—unless you count your chores checklist.

As 15 minutes of playing Iconary became 45, I forgot that I was drawing and guessing with a robot. Rob Angel, the Pictionary founder, felt the same. But it didn’t feel wrong; games, technology, and interactions evolve. “Nothing stays static,” Angel says.

So maybe we’re inching toward an Ex Machina-esque future—kowtowing to our robot overlords—or maybe we’ll be whipping up brownies with our robot bestie. For now, the machines sure can play a mean game of Pictionary.

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