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This article was published on December 29, 2021

The AI stories that made us smile in 2021 — and 5 that made us cry

A love/hate affair with algorithms


The AI stories that made us smile in 2021 — and 5 that made us cry
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

AI had a memorable 2021, although not always for the best reasons. The field unleashed an arousing blend of breakthroughs, applications, and ideas — but also discharged a steady stream of bigotry, BS, and big tech barbarity.

At Neural, we aspire to be like Fox News in its prime: fair and balanced. In this equitable spirit, we’ve compiled an even mix of AI’s best and worst of 2021.

Without further ado, here are five stories that made us cherish our robot overlords — and five that had us reaching for the off switch.

10. Bad: Slaughterbots coming to your neighborhood

Credit: Nicole Greene

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It was another busy year for AI weaponry. After DARPA tested algorithm-controlled jets in dogfights and a robot dog briefly joined the French military, we received a warning: “slaughterbots” will soon be on our streets — unless the UN bans them.

9. Good: Turning the tone-deaf into rap stars

Use this AI to generate new verses from your favorite rappers.
Credit: Daniel Ramirez/Pixabay (edited)

Computational creativity had a big 2021, offering a mix of inspiration and indignation to human artists. My favorite iteration was an app that turns your text into raps by legendary artists. It’s the closest I’ll ever come to spitting like Biggie Smalls — although Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda put my own efforts to shame.

8. Bad: Cops running rampant with AI

The LAPD says it's ditching a predictive policing program to cut costs, but activitists believe their protests led to the decision
Credit: Tomás Del Coro

If there’s a dystopian application of AI available, there’s a strong chance that the police want to try it. Countless cops can already use blackbox AI to conduct unethical surveillance, generate evidence, and swerve constitutional protections — and it’s only going to get worse.

7. Good: Quantum AI could make our planet a paradise

Credit: Tristan Greene

It’s easy to focus on the worst of tech — particularly when you’re as jaded as I am — but there are reasons to be optimistic about the future. One is the potential of quantum AI to fight diseases, war, famine, and aging.

Bad: GPT-3’s bigotry

The researchers found that GPT-3 captures persistent Muslim-violence bias in various uses of the model and to a more severe degree than other religions.
Credit: Logan Ingalls

It wouldn’t be a worst of AI countdown without a mention of biogtry. Unfortunately, this year provided a range of horrors to choose from, from fears of machine-driven segregation to Facebook’s racist AI. I’ve plumped for one GPT-3’s array of prejudices: the model’s “consistent and creative anti-Muslim bias.” This is one example of computational creativity we could do without.

5. Good: Searching for future diseases

Credit: CDC on Unsplash

During COVID-19, AI has promised much but delivered little. However, researchers have developed a tool that could help us prepare for the next one: an AI-powered system that identifies diseases that could leap from animals to humans.

4. Bad: Dreams of driverless cars dying

Tesla's full self driving interface
Credit: Tesla

Driverless cars were supposed to be dominating the roads by now, but the technical challenges are still proving hard to solve. The dream hasn’t died just yet, but it’s now on life support.

3. Good: Disrupting the ridiculous hearing aid market

Credit: Whisper

The excitement over scientific breakthroughs and futurology can lead us to overlook some of the AI that can make a difference today. There are numerous examples, from BCIs turning paralyzed peoples’ thoughts into speech to this gadget for people with hearing loss.

2. Bad: The Google search algorithm

Credit: Nicole Gray

Sometimes, you need to experience a problem to truly understand it. Neural editor Tristran Greene did just that after discovering that Google News thinks he’s the queerest AI reporter in the world. That title shouldn’t be a source of shame, but the result was that the algorithm pigeonholed some people and overlooked others. Tristan later learned that he could somewhat game the system — but if he could do it, so could nefarious actors. 

1. Good: A new approach to AI ethics

Former Google researcher Timnit Gebru has launched an AI research lab called the DAIR Institute.
Credit: The DAIR Institute

The fallout over Timnit Gebru’s firing from Google began last year, but the ramifications rumbled across 2021. The incident sparked concerns about diversity and AI ethics in tech — but it’s also produced positive outcomes. Exactly a year after Gebru lost her job at Google, she announced a new position: founder and executive director of DAIR, a lab that aims to make AI research independent from big tech. It’s an ambitious vision, but it sets a precedent for future ethics institutes.

Here’s hoping that 2022 brings more bold and positive AI developments — before the slaughterbots kill us all.

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