Computers now read better than humans: Microsoft and Alibaba’s AI have taken the edge in comprehension tests

When it comes to skills that humans have got pretty much nailed down, reading comes pretty high on the list. Global literacy rates of those over the age of 15 sits at around 86%, but like with so many other things, artificial intelligence might just have us licked. Again.

In fact, two artificial intelligences did it independently: programs created by both Alibaba and Microsoft beat humans in the test administered by Stanford University. The final score was Humans: 82.304; Alibaba: 82.44; Microsoft: 82.650. Close, but a clear winning margin.

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But how do you assess who is better at reading? Well, it’s all about understanding the text and how words relate to one another. The test examines comprehension, giving participants a web page to read and then asking them specific questions about its content. For example, if I were testing you on how closely you’ve been reading this, I might ask “What is the global literacy rate amongst over 15s?” or “which university set the test?”computers_can_now_read_better_than_humans_-_1

“That means objective questions such as ‘What causes rain’ can now be answered with high accuracy by machines,” said Luo Si, chief scientist for natural language processing at Alibaba’s Institute of Data Science of Technologies. That’s good, but wait – there’s a sting in the tail.

“The technology underneath can be gradually applied to numerous applications, such as customer service, museum tutorials and online responses to medical inquiries from patients, decreasing the need for human input in an unprecedented way,” he continued.

Oh.

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A Microsoft spokesperson – Andrew Pickup – was a little more sensitive to human concerns such as employment and needing money to live. “These kinds of tests are certainly useful benchmarks for how far along the AI journey we may be,” he said. “However, the real benefit of AI is when it is used in harmony with humans.”

You’d like to think so, but it really depends on who you ask. Some HR departments would definitely take a cheap, efficient robot over a fleshy, sick-leave claiming, salary-drawing, whiny human any day of the week. That’s why Labour has called for a tax on robots, while big names from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg have called for some kind of universal income to make way for the day when we have no work left to do.

Can humanity keep the arguments over its future down, please? The robots have got books to read.

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