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Timo Honkela: From Brain Tumour to Peace Machine.

CC BY-SA 4.0, by Wikipedia user Soppakanuuna

This is not a billion dollar idea. This is a hundred billion dollar idea.

Timo Honkela is a computer scientist, cognitive scientist, artificial intelligence researcher and a machine-learner. Three years ago he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He underwent a dramatic treatment in the course of which half of his visual cortex was removed — in particular. Fortuntely, he remained totally sane; in his own words, only some “vocabulary got cut out”. But the danger of the tumour re-activating in any part of his brain remains hanging in the air.

What do you do in a situation where you hear death breathing behind your shoulder? Some get smashed down and depressed. But not Timo. He thought: “If I am going to die soon, what can I do with all the knowledge and expertise that I have gained so far in my life?”

Having the strongest expertise in the field of automatic language processing, he decided to  exploit it — and eventually other machine learning techniques — to make communication between people more peaceful. Sounds ambitious? Yes it does. We all understand words a little differently and while you may write a short e-mail just because you don’t have time to write a long one, the recepient might interpret it as laconic and unfriendly. Question is: with the enormous amount of data that we have today (and Google and Facebook have of our chats and e-mails), what would it take to write a machine learning algorithm which will put up a small warning sign next to your Compose-window whenever it thinks that there is a risk of unintended negativity-induction? This of course can be extended to devices measuring heart-rate variability, voice recognition systems and so on and so forth to help people from anticipating arguments with their spouse to softening political conflict situations.

This is a controversial and curious idea which according to Timo is not a billion dollar idea, but a hundred billion dollar idea…. To learn more, read Timo Honkela’s new book  (now only in Finnish, English version is coming), follow him on Twitter at @THonkela and listen to this podcast episode which was recorded this August:

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