The book project of Timo Honkela, professor of research into digital information, focuses on the opportunities presented by machine learning.

What if we allowed a computer to listen to everything we say and read everything we write, and then to analyse the material?

This may sound frightening, but according to Timo Honkela (@THonkela), Professor of Research into Digital Information at the University of Helsinki, it could offer a chance for an unprecedented level of understanding – and even world peace.

Honkela’s vision is founded on machine learning. While listening to me and reading my texts, the machine would learn – slowly but surely – the exact meaning I give to words and concepts.

 “We all use words in a slightly different manner,” Honkela explains. “This easily leads to conflicts: if I feel that something is fair, but you don’t, we may not actually disagree on the matter but simply be assigning different meanings to fairness.”

If machines were to analyse everyone’s way of using language, it would be easy to detect conflicts in meaning. This would essentially reduce misunderstandings and help avoid arguments over the meaning of an agreement.

It could also reduce conflicts. In fact, Honkela has named his idea “the peace machine”.

A 100-YEAR PROJECT

The peace machine has more to it than a semantic analysis. In Honkela’s visions, the machine could feature a total of five to seven elements. The essential elements would include human emotion modelling and multi-objective optimisation, in which the machine would seek win-win solutions for several parties.

According to Honkela, the required technology basically exists for most elements. What needs to be considered now is how to implement the machine in practice – and how to sell the idea to people.

 “The loss of privacy is a disadvantage. However, we already let social media analyse us, so you would expect that the right incentives could solve this issue.”

Honkela does not believe in a quick breakthrough, however.

 “I expect a time span of one hundred years or so.”

MODERN-DAY SOCRATES

In Honkela’s case, a long-term perspective has a very special meaning. The Professor has been diagnosed with cancer, and the prognosis is not good. Honkela has now decided to complete the peace machine book before his death.

In one-and-a-half weeks, the project has collected over 30,000 euros through crowdsourcing.

The contributions have come as a pleasant surprise to Mika Pantzar, research professor at the National Consumer Research Centre, who supports the project. He hopes Honkela can start his writing soon.

 “I believe it would be an important contribution. Timo is Socrates-like in that he enjoys asking strange questions and communicating his thoughts to his followers.”

Peace machine crowdsourcing project on the Mesenaatti website