A s China's annual parliamentary session opened last week, Xinhua debuted a robotic news reader in a pink dress to provide updates and report on the proceedings. Xin Xiaomeng joined two "male" AI news anchors already working with the state-run news agency. Sotheby's, meanwhile, sold its first AI-created artwork - an installation by German artist Mario Klingemann who yoked a set of neural networks to create a stream of portraits, an experience described as "watching an act of endless imagination take place in the mind of a machine". In southern England, an online supermarket, an investor's darling for its unreserved embrace of technology, saw its expensive, five-storey automated warehouse razed to the ground after a robot caught fire. This is just a sampling of the interesting, no longer exceptional, developments in today's algorithm-driven lives.
As AI steadily makes inroads, promising freedom from tedious work and cheaper, quicker goods and services, governments and companies are grasping for rules to deal with its societal implications, and the degree of human intervention needed. To aid the digital grocer whose facilities went up in flames, for example, more than 200 firemen had to be mobilised. One challenge was in accessing the narrow warehouse built for machines, not humans. Clearly, a design problem not anticipated by the retailer nor the authorities. The AI artwork revived the familiar agonising over whether a machine can truly be creative, does it transcend replication, can it be said to be expressive since there is no intent within it. And who owns the work: The algorithm or the team behind it? In the same session in which Xinhua deployed the smooth yet stilted news automatons, the chief executives of two Chinese tech giants, Baidu's Robin Li and Tencent's Pony Ma, submitted proposals calling on China to integrate ethics into innovation to protect against practices such as intrusive data collecting and to better regulate electronic medical records.