Skip to main content

Conversations with Robots: UCSC’s Marilyn Walker on the Future of AI

Conversations with Robots: UCSC’s Marilyn Walker on the Future of AI

Discussions about artificial intelligence tend to the extremes: AI is either going to transform life as we know it for the better, or else, as my brother in-law is convinced, we’re engineering robots that will destroy us.

Marilyn Walker, a Professor of Computer Science at UC Santa Cruz and a fellow of the Association for Computational Linguistics, isn’t terribly worried. The way she sees it, we have a long way to go before anything dystopian is even a consideration.

“My snarky comment about the ‘AI is going to kill us’ all argument,” she says, “is if anybody really understood how bad it is at so many things, then nobody would be worried.”

An acclaimed AI researcher, Walker’s work includes the following: computational models of dialogue interaction and conversational agents, analysis of affect, sarcasm and other social phenomena in social media dialogue, acquiring causal knowledge from text, conversational summarization, interactive story and narrative generation, and statistical methods for training the dialogue manager and the language generation engine for dialogue systems.

In human-speak, Walker works on natural language processing for AI. This field bridges her lifelong love of language and her longtime interest in AI. And yes, she does have concerns about the future of AI, but her concerns are more around privacy and companies selling our private data. As she puts it, “What is it that Alexa and Google Home hear and store? How do the companies preserve that? Do they sell it off? Are they profiting from your private data?”

As far as the big picture of AI, however, Walker says for every dystopian nightmare scenario, there’s a socially good application. For instance, two robot dogs made a splash on social media last month with a video of them opening doors. The video elicited comments such as, “This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” and “I’ll never sleep again.” But Walker explains that similar robots are being developed for work in search and rescue.

“You think about them being used in warfare and it kind of looks like Lord of the Rings—it looks like these monstrous robots coming to get you,” she says. “On the other hand...you can have little cockroach-sized robots that can get into nooks and crannies with a camera on their back, and maybe a voice, and try to find people in a collapsed building. The technology is hand-in-hand: for every dystopian scenario you can imagine there's a matching, really good, social good use.”

AI conversational agents are being used to help autistic children practice conversation in a comfortable environment. They’re being used in literacy applications, such as reading to children who aren’t getting enough verbal input, and asking questions to boost the childrens' narrative comprehension and oral language skills. The agents are also being used as companions for the elderly who can connect with their world and loved ones through voice commands.

“Even some small facilitation like that is a really good side of the technology,” says Walker. “There’s a lot of stuff in this space. It’s exciting.”

With her own work in AI, Walker is deep into the intricacies of language and dialogue: thinking about how people choose what they say and how they say it—and using that understanding to improve AI.

“There's a lot of pragmatics going on there,” she says. “There's a lot of social reasoning and intentional reasoning around how to say things to achieve your purpose in normal everyday conversation.”

Getting a machine to have any semblance of some of these complex social behaviors around language is at the heart of Walker’s work.

“It's a really challenging problem,” she says, "that has always fascinated me.”

Here in Santa Cruz, Walker is excited by what she sees in the tech community—both in town and on campus. She’s particularly excited about the work Amazon is doing here on the supporting app that delivers the Alexa voice agent.

Walker would like to see more advanced development and research in the AI space in Santa Cruz that would tie-in to UCSC. People in the venture capital space, as well as people thinking of starting AI startups, reach out to her and her students, but one of the challenges Walker sees is that it’s “hard to compete with the buzz of the Valley.”

She’s known numerous people from Santa Cruz and UCSC who moved to Silicon Valley because they need to be more connected to the larger AI movement in places such as Menlo Park, Santa Clara and San Francisco. But, between the unused warehouse space in Santa Cruz that could be repurposed into lab space, and the new UCSC campus in Santa Clara that will have AI courses and degrees, Walker is optimistic about the future of AI in Santa Cruz.

“I think there will be a lot of cross-fertilization between the Santa Clara campus and the main campus,” she says. “That’s one of the goals...to try to tie those two communities together and make cross-fertilization between the two stronger.”

Santa Cruz tech companies: Join Santa Cruz Works at santacruzworks.org/membership

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on coworking, the workspace industry, and community. Learn more at catjohnson.co