Robert Downey Jr launches YouTube doco featuring University of Auckland's AI baby

7:43 pm on 22 December 2019

YouTube has premiered a Robert Downey Jr-fronted series that seeks to demystify artificial intelligence.

University of Auckland's AI baby project called Baby X.

Photo: YouTube / Laboratory for Animate Technologies

The documentary - produced by the actor in partnership with his wife Susan - is one of the platform's highest profile and biggest-budgeted factual commissions to date.

The first episode of the Age of AI centres on a digitally-created, AI-powered baby.

The Baby X project is led by special-effects artist Mark Sagar, who is director of the University of Auckland's Laboratory for Animate Technologies.

Baby X aims to teach a digital infant via a virtual brain powered by neural networks.

The second episode focuses on AI and healthcare, a controversial area Google is heavily invested in.

It shows how a speech assistance tool - WaveNet developed by the tech giant's DeepMind division - is helping a former National Football League (NFL) athlete speak again with computer-generated voice that sounds like he used to.

Tim Shaw has trouble speaking as a result of motor neuron disease. He provided voice samples from prior to his diagnosis that DeepMind attempts to recreate. His family hear his new synthesised voice for the first time in the episode.

Prof Noel Sharkey is known to UK audiences for his work on the BBC's Robot Wars and Techno Games TV series, and is also a leading critic of big tech's involvement in the field.

He praised the new series' "high quality production" values, but voiced concern about the way it covered a digital avatar created for the musician in the first episode.

"While it was very impressive, it failed to adequately address the downsides of the potential deceit of projecting a false image of particular people," he said.

"Given that Google [funded] this production, it is vitally important to ensure public understanding of such tech rather than paint it in such glowing colours."

The Avengers star is expected to give the Age of AI mass appeal.

One AI expert said there was "lots of eye candy for viewers with short attention spans".

Calum Chace, author of four books on the subject, said that artificial intelligence is a "large, complex, and important" subject.

"The message of the [first] episode is clear: machine learning can make us more human, not less, but we will have to think carefully about where we want to draw the line," he said.

YouTube originally put most of its original content behind a paywall, but changed its strategy earlier this year.

As a result, viewers can watch the series for free but will have to wait for each episode to be released in turn unless they pay a "premium" subscription fee, in which case the first four shows are unlocked.


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