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Airs Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV & Thursday, Nov. 7 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2

FRONTLINE Investigates the Promise and Perils of Artificial Intelligence In a Two-Hour Special

It’s been called “The New Space Race.” This time it’s China taking on the United States, and the race is to seize control of a technology with the potential to change everything – the way we work; how we play; how our democracy functions; how the world could be realigned.

On Tues., Nov. 5, a two-hour FRONTLINE documentary special, “In The Age Of AI,” explores some of the ways in which our world is being re-shaped and reimagined by the technology of artificial intelligence — whose development has been compared to the industrial revolution and the discovery of electricity as an epochal event in human history.


“It's in healthcare, it's in education, it's in criminal justice,” leading researcher Kate Crawford tells FRONTLINE of the rise of AI. “It has pervaded so many elements of everyday life and in a way that in many cases is completely opaque to people.”

"In The Age Of AI" begins in 2016 with what’s been called “the Sputnik moment” for the Chinese government, when a computer program developed by Google’s DeepMind defeated the world champion in the ancient Chinese game of Go — a game of strategy with more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe.

DeepMind’s success “is going to be remembered as the pivotal moment where AI became mature and everybody jumped on the bandwagon,” Kai-Fu Lee, a leading Chinese AI researcher and venture capitalist, tells FRONTLINE.

In fact, after that game of Go, Chinese president Xi Jinping set goals that China would catch up to the U.S. in artificial intelligence by 2025 and lead the world by 2030.

"In The Age Of AI" follows Kai-Fu Lee to get an inside view of China’s extraordinarily competitive start-up culture, where in a matter of a few years highly successful AI companies have sprung up, taking advantage of the country’s embrace of new tech and the enormous streams of data that have been produced.


“Data is the new oil,” says Kai-Fu Lee, and “China is the Saudi Arabia of data.”

At the heart of the race to harness AI’s power is the breakthrough technology that led to DeepMind’s victory. By using an AI program that essentially taught itself how to play and win at Go, scientists unleashed a new power into the world – self-learning algorithms that, if fed enough data and given a specific goal, can essentially program themselves to assess a problem, make predictions, and come up with solutions. It’s called deep learning.

”It wasn't clear ten years ago that it would work,” says computer scientist Yoshua Bengio, who helped pioneer deep learning, “but it has completely changed the map and is now used in almost every sector of society.”

Put to good use, the potential benefits could be enormous: “We are overcoming the limitations of our minds. We're not getting rid of them, we're not making them unnecessary, but holy cow, can we leverage them and amplify them now,” MIT researcher Andrew McAfee tells FRONTLINE. “You have to be a huge pessimist not to find that profoundly good news.”

“The real practical and wonderful promise is that machines help us be more creative and using that creativity, we get to terrific solutions,” Amy Webb, futurist and author of "The Big Nine," explains.

That’s what happened to Regina Barzilay, an AI scientist at MIT who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Unsatisfied with explanations for why she had an earlier misdiagnosis, she joined forces with Dr. Connie Lehman at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and designed a system applying machine deep learning to thousands of diagnostic records and mammograms.

They’ve been able to answer Dr. Lehman’s question: “’Does this woman have a cancer now and will she develop a cancer in five years?’ That’s where artificial intelligence and deep learning can really help us and our patients.”

An AI Scientist Turned a Breast Cancer Diagnosis Into a Tool to Save Lives

As the film explores, the commercial applications of deep learning are enormous. Alex Rodrigues is the 24-year-old CEO of the self-driving truck company Embark. His trucks are already delivering freight from California to Arizona on Interstate 10.

There is a driver in the cab, but he is not driving. The aim is to eliminate him – something that could happen, Rodrigues says, within “less than half a decade.”

The benefits, Rodrigues says, could include freight costs cut in half — and, if self-driving vehicles are successful, a great reduction in road accidents, mostly caused by human error. But the image of a driverless vehicle also starkly illustrates the concerns about job loss that accompany discussions about AI.

Independent trucker Shawn Cumbee and his wife Hope, of Beaverton, Michigan are convinced that automation won’t be able to take his job. “It is still man made, and man makes mistakes,” says Shawn. “I really ain’t worried.”

But when Hope hears that Embark trucks are already delivering freight on Interstate 10, she pauses: “Really?”

As computers learn to drive, to do accountancy, to scan legal papers, to pack grocery bins and a myriad of other tasks — both blue-collar and white-collar — "In The Age Of AI" explains how AI is really a form of automation, and how over the last four decades, automation has killed more jobs than have been lost to plants going offshore. The fear now is that AI could greatly accelerate that trend.

Could the Rise of AI Put Truckers' Jobs in Peril?

“I believe about 50 percent of jobs will be somewhat or extremely threatened by AI in the next 15 years or so,” says Kai-Fu Lee, who has written a book called "AI Superpowers."

He fears that the rise of AI will contribute to another alarming trend: the growing inequality in earnings. “AI will exacerbate that and I think it will tear the society apart,” Kai-Fu Lee warns, “because the rich will have just too much, and those who are have-nots will have perhaps very little way of digging themselves out of the hole.”

The film concerns about how in both China and the United States artificial intelligence is violating privacy and intruding into personal lives.

In China, cameras with AI-powered facial recognition are everywhere, while various pilot projects use AI to give people a “social credit” score, punishing some for certain behavior and rewarding others for what the government considers good citizenship.

“China,” says dissident academic Xiao Qiang, “is on its way to building a total surveillance state.”

The demonstration project is in the province of Xinjiang, where AI is being deployed on the Muslim population in a campaign that has alarmed human rights groups. China says it’s using the technology to determine potential “terrorists”; it’s estimated that a million or more members of the ethnic Uighur population have been sent to so-called “re-education camps.”

Meanwhile, China is both exporting its technology and its authoritarian methods around the world, and erecting a “bamboo curtain” encompassing shared infrastructure, internet, and 5G digital systems.

“One of the things I worry about the most is that the world is going to split in two, and that there'll be a Chinese tech sector and there'll be an American tech sector,” says Nicholas Thompson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine. “And countries will effectively get to choose which one they want. It'll be kind of like the Cold War, where you decide, are we going to align with the Soviet Union or are we going to align with the United States? That's not a world that's good for anybody.”  

"In The Age Of AI" also follows the argument that in the U.S. there is a pervasive but more hidden form of “corporate surveillance,” in which AI algorithms gather data to learn as much about us as possible, in order to sell our private information to advertisers.

“You know, we came into this new world thinking that we were users of social media. It didn't occur to us that social media was actually using us,” Harvard professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff tells FRONTLINE. “We thought that we were searching Google. We had no idea that Google was searching us.“ 

Zuboff, the author of "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism," warns that beyond harvesting the “digital exhaust” of our online lives, the data that Google, Facebook and other companies gather about us can be used by third parties to target and manipulate voters in elections. “This is precisely what Cambridge Analytica did,” she says, “simply pivoting from the advertisers to the political outcomes.”

That concern is echoed by AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio, who fears that his deep learning algorithms, while holding such promise for society and the future, could also pose a threat: “The AIs are tools. They will serve the people who control those tools. If those people's interests go against the values of the democracy, then democracy is in danger,” he says.

“In The Age Of AI” is a powerful and telling journey into how this new technology will transform our world — and some of the ways it already has.

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A FRONTLINE production with Five O’Clock Films. The producers and writers are David Fanning and Neil Docherty. The directors are Neil Docherty and David Fanning. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.