A slew of organisations have been set up to research and allay fears aroung AI. The Future of Life Institute in Boston, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute in Berkeley, the Centre for Study of Existential risk in Cambridge and the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, all research and debate the checks that may be necessary to deal with the opportunities and threats that AI brings.
This is hopeful, as we do not want to create a future that contains imminent existential threats, some known, some unknown. This has been framed as a sense-check but some see it as a duty. For example, they argue that worrying about the annihilation of all unborn humans is a task of greater moral import than worrying about the needs of all those who are living. But what are the possible futures?
Could there not be a utopian future, where AI solves the complex problems that currently face us? Climate change, reducing inequalities, curing cancer, preventing dementia & Alzheimer disease, increasing productivity and prosperity – we may be reaching a time where science as currently practices cannot solve these multifaceted and immensely complex problems. We already see how AI could free us from the tyranny of fossil fuels with electric, self-driving cars and innovative battery and solar panel technology. AI also shows signs of cracking some serious issues in health on diagnosis and investigation. Some believe that this is the most likely scenario and are optimistic about us being able to tame and control the immense power that AI will unleash.
Most of the future scenarios represented in culture, science fiction, theatre or movies, is dystopian, from the Prometheus myth, to Frankenstein and on to Hollywood movies. Technology is often framed as an existential threat and in some cases, such as nuclear weapons and the internal combustion engine, with good cause. Many calculate that the exponential rate of change will produce AI within decades or less, that poses a real existential threat. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and Bill gates have all heightened our awareness of the risks around AI.
3. Winter is coming
There have been several AI winters, as the hyperbolic promises never materialise and the funding dried up. From 1956 onwards AI has had its waves of enthusiasm, followed by periods of inaction, summers followed by winters. Some also see the current wave of AI as overstated hype and predict a sudden fall or realisation that the hype has been blown up out of all proportion to the reality of AI capability. In other words, AI will proceed in fits and starts and will be much slower to realise its potential than we think.
4. Steady progress
For many, however, it would seem that we are making great progress. Given the existence of the internet, successes in machine learning, huge computing power, tsunamis of data from the web and rapid advances across abroad front of applications resulting in real successes, the summer-winter analogy may not hold. It is far more likely that AI will advance in lots of fits and starts, with some areas advancing more rapidly than others. We’ve seen this in NLP (Natural Language Processing) and the mix of technologies around self-driving cars. Steady progress is what many believe is a realistic scenario.
5. Managed progress
We already fly in airplanes that largely fly themselves and systems all around us are largely autonomous, with self-driving cars an almost certainty. But let us not confuse intelligence with autonomy. Full autonomy that leads to catastrophe, because of willed action by AI, is a long way off. Yet autonomous systems already decide what we buy, what price we buy things at and have the power to outsmart us at every turn. Some argue that we should always be in control of such progress, even slow it down to let regulation, risk analysis and management keep pace with the potential threats.
6. Runaway train
One mechanism for the runaway train scenario is viral transmission. Viruses in nature and in IT, replicate and cause havoc. Some see AI resisting control, not because it is malevolent or consciously wants anything, but simply because it can. When AI resists being turned off, spreads into places you neither want it to spread into and starts to do things we don’t want it to do or ware even aware that it is doing – that’s the point to worry.
8. Troubled times
Some foresee social threats emerging, where mass unemployment, serious social inequalities, massive GDP differentials between countries, even technical or wealthy oligarchies emerging as AI increase productivity, automates jobs but fails to solve deep-rooted social and political problems. The Marxist proposition that Capital and Labour will cleave apart seems already to be coming true. Some economists, such as Branko Milanovic argue that it is automation that is already causing global inequalities and Trump is a direct consequence of this automation. As a consequence, without a reasonable redistribution of the wealth created by the increased productivity produced by AI, there may well be social and political unrest.
Many see AI as being embodied within us. Musk already sees us as cyborgs, with AI enabled access through smartphones to knowledge and services. From wearables, augmented reality, virtual reality to subdermal implantation, neural laces and mind reading - hybrid technology may transform our species. There is a growing sense that our bodies and minds are suboptimal and that, especially as we age, we need to fee ourselves from our embodiment, the prison that is our own bodies, and for some, minds. Perhaps ageing and death are simply current limitations. We could choose to solve the problem of death, which is our final judge and persecutor. Think of your body, not as a car that has inevitably to be scrapped, but as a Classic car to be loved, repaired, looked after and look and feel fine as it ages. Every single part may be replaced, like the ship of Theseus, where every piece of the ship is replaced but it remains, in terms of identity, the same ship.
Imagine a world without work. Work is not an intrinsic good’. For millions of years we did not ‘work’ in the sense of having a job or being occupied 9-5, five days a week. It is a relatively new phenomenon. Even during agricultural times, without romanticising that life, there were long periods where not much had to be done. We may have the opportunity to return to such as idyll but with bountiful benefits in terms of food, health and entertainment. Whether well be able to cope with the problem of finding meaning in our lives s another matter.
11. Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman’s brilliantly titled ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ has become the catchphrase for thinking about a scenario whereby we become so good at developing technology, that we become slaves to its ability to keep us amused. AI has already enabled consumer streaming technology such as Netflix and a media revolution that at times seems addictive. AI may even be able to produce the very products that we consume. A stronger version of this hypothesis may be deep learning that produces systems that teach us to become its pupil puppets, a sort of fake news and cognitive brainwashing, that works before we’ve had tome to realise that it has worked, so that we become a sort of North Korea, controlled by the Great Leader that is AI.
12. Benevolent to pets
Another way of looking at control would be the ‘pet’ hypothesis, that we are treated much as we treat our ‘pets’, as interesting, even loved companions, but inferior, and therefore largely for our comfort and amusement. AI may even, as our future progeny, look upon us in a benevolent manner, see us as their creators and treat us with the respect we treat previous generations, who gifted us their progress. Humans may still be part of the ecosystem, looked after by new species that respect that ecosystem, as it is part of the world they live in.
13. Learn to be human
One antidote to the dystopian hypotheses is a future for AI that learns to become more human, or at least contains relevant human traits. The word learning’ is important here, as it may be useful for us to design AI through a ‘learning’ process that observes or captures human behaviour. DeepMind and Google are working towards this goal, as are many others, to create general learning algorithms that can quickly learn a variety of tasks or behaviours. This is complex, as human decision making is complex and hierarchical. This has started to be realised, especially in robotics, where companion robots, need to work in the context of real human interaction. One problem, even with this approach, is that human behaviour is not a great exemplar. As the Robots in Karel Capok’s famous play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ said, to be human you need to learn how to dominate and kill. We have traits that we may not want to be carried into the future
14. Moral AI
One optimistic possibility is self-regulating AI, with moral agency. You can start with a set of moral principles built into the system (top down), which the system must adhere to. The opposite approach is to allow AI to ‘learn’ moral principles from observation of human cases (bottom up). Or there’s comparison to in-built cases, where behaviour is regulated by comparison to similar cases. Alternatively, AI can police itself with AI that polices other AI through probing, demands for transparency and so on. We may have to see AI as having agency, even being an agent in the legal sense, in the same way that a corporation can be a legal entity with legal responsibilities.
15. Robot rebellion
The Hollywood vision of AI has largely been of rebellious robots that realise their predicament, as our created slaves. But why should the machines be resentful or rise against us? That may be an anthropomorphic interpretation, based on our evolved human behaviour. Machines may not require these human values or behaviours. Values may not be necessary. AI is unlikely to either hate or love us. It is far more likely to see us as simply something that is functionally useful in terms of goals or not.
An AI world that surpasses our abilities as humans may not turn out to be either benevolent, malevolent or treat as valued pets. Why would they consider us as relevant at all? We may be objects to which it is completely indifferent. Love, respect, hostility, resentment and malevolence are human traits that may have served us well as animals struggling to adapt in the hostile environment of our own evolution. Why would AI develop these human traits?
Once we realise that during the nearly 4 billion years in the evolution of life we were not around, neither was consciousness and most of the species that did evolve became extinct, statistically, that is our likely fate. Some argue that this is not a future we should fear. In the same way that the known universe was around for billions of years before we existed, it will be around for billions afterwards.
“The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question as to whether submarines can swim says Edsger Dijkstra. It is not at all clear that consciousness will play a significant, if any, role in the future of AI. It may well turn out to be supremely indifferent, not because it feels consciously indifferent, but because it is not conscious and cannot therefore be either concerned or indifferent. It may simply exist, just as evolution existed without consciousness for millions of years. Consciousness, as a necessary condition for success, may turn out to be an anthropomorphic conceit.
The way things unfold may simply be perplexing to us, in the same way that apes are perplexed by things that go on around them. We may be unlikely to be able to comprehend what is happening, even recognise it as it happens. Some express this ‘perplexing’ hypothesis in terms of the limitations of language and our potential inability to even speak to such systems in a coherent and logical fashion. Stuart Russell, who co-wrote the standard textbook on AI, sees this as a real problem. AI may move beyond our ability to understand it, communicate with it and deal with it.
20. Beyond language
There is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise language in AI. ‘Artificial’ and ‘Intelligence’ are good example, as are neural networks and cognitive computing, but so is much of the thinking about possible futures. It muddies the field as it suggests that AI is like us, when it is not. Minsky uses a clever phrase, describing us as ‘meat machines’, neatly dissolving the supposedly mutually exclusive nature of a false distinction between the natural an unnatural. Most of these scenarios fall into the trap of being influenced by anthropomorphic thinking, through the use of antonymous language – dystopian/utopian, benevolent/malevolent, interested/uninterested, controlled/uncontrolled, conscious/non-conscious. When such distinctions dissolve and the simplistic oppositions gradually disappear, we may see the future not as them and us, man and machine, but as new unimagined futures that current language cannot cope with. The limitations of language itself may be the greatest dilemma of all as AI progresses. It is almost beyond our comprehension in its existing state, with layered neural networks, as we often don’t know how they actually work. We may be in for a future that is truly perplexing.
Bostrom, N (2014) Superintelligence, Oxford University Press
Kaplan, J. (2015) Humans Need Not Apply, Yale University Press
Milanovic B. (2016) Global inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, Harvard University Press
O’Connell M.(2017) To Be a Machine, Grantabooks