AI Futures: Thinking Intelligently About Artificial Intelligence

September 01, 2020

AI Today: Media Darling (and Devil)

Right now, the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is riding high, atop the crest of a success wave that’s been building for many years.

But AI has the unique distinction of being both a media darling and a media devil.

A darling because AI is proving to be extremely successful at solving practical, sometimes astonishing real-world problems, in a wide range of domains and applications – some of which were once considered to be the sole province of human intelligence.

And a devil because there’s a lot of uncertainty and fear about what AI may become someday. You know, SkyNet. The Terminator. HAL-9000. The Evil AI.

So before we dive into the positive AI present (and “promising future”), let’s address the dire warnings about AI (the “perilous future”) that have been so widely reported in the media in recent years.

AI’s Frightful Future: Hear the “End is Near” Fear?

The news media seems to love putting forth a plethora of negative predictions regarding AI, and these dire warnings have been coming from some very high-profile and respected scientists and tech gurus. Folks like Elon Musk, the late Stephen Hawking, and several others have expressed strong opinions stating that the development of AI is an existential threat to humanity. That AI may destroy us all. That it is so dangerous, we should not even fully develop it. And of course, all those Terminator movies (and other dystopian films) have a similar underlying prediction about AI doom.

Fortunately, predictions often have a habit of being wrong.

And this is probably the case here. Because the good news is:

  • These fearful predictions are talking about a different kind of AI, a different level of intelligence, on a scale that is simply not here yet.
  • The AI that is here now is not going to destroy humankind. Quite the contrary: it is incredibly useful, and relatively benign (at least for now).

The Age of AI Applications: AI’s Bright Near-Term Future

One after another, tasks that used to be considered too intelligent for a mere machine have been conquered by creative AI techniques.

The game of chess was considered a form of intelligence a computer could never master at human level – until it beat the world chess champion in the late 90s. The game of Go is so complex, surely no AI could master it – but, you guessed it, a program recently beat the best human player in the world. Watson (an AI developed by IBM, named after the company’s founder) beat the two best human Jeopardy players in a match, and it wasn’t even close. AI can now drive cars –perhaps better than humans. AI can understand speech, generate speech, create art and music — all elements of being human, but now also the domain of AI.

One could point to many reasons for AI’s many recent successes, such as:

Continually improving AI techniques,

More AI practitioners entering the field and applying those techniques,

More data becoming available, in more fields, and

Compute power becoming ever more powerful and cheaper, at an ever faster rate, allowing AI algorithms to more rapidly process that explosion in data.

Here are some key takeaways about present and near-future AI:

  • Current state-of-the-art AI techniques transform raw data into useful insights, theories, and predictions. In short, AI turns data into knowledge.
  • AI is doing this in an ever growing number of domains.
  • Data is driving the Information Revolution the way coal drove the Industrial Revolution. No wonder data is now considered by many to be more valuable than oil.
  • If current trends continue, AI will be in just about everything.  Talking about AI may eventually be like talking about electricity today, because it will be ubiquitous. You won’t be able to find any place or any thing that doesn’t have some form of intelligence embedded in it.
  • Despite AI’s rapid success rate in solving increasingly harder problems, today’s AI systems are not capable of world domination or destruction. They are more narrow-minded (focused on limited, relatively small-scale problems) than the AI of dystopian movies and Musk and Hawking. Current AI is solving real problems and bringing benefit to an increasing number of people, so you can stop worrying (for at least a decade or two).

The Age of AI Apocalypse: Will The Far Future Be Frightening?

Now let’s look further into the future, where dire AI warnings probably reside.

The kind of AI that has the potential to destroy humankind will most likely not arise for several decades – depending on who you ask, it could be within the next decade, but more likely would appear around a quarter century from now (the year 2045 has been cited before by several sources).

Of course, it might be half a century in the future. No one really knows for sure.

So if you assume that we have at least a few years (and probably decades) to get our minds around these artificial minds, we should feel fortunate that we do seem to have time to sort out whatever problems “Future Super AI” may bring.

Nuclear Fission Analogy

AI can be a difficult invention to characterize.  Incredibly useful, exciting, and promising for what it is doing and can potentially do in the near term, yet frightening for what it may become in a far off future, some unknown length of time from now.

Does this “double edged sword” nature of AI remind you of any other invention with both benefits and extreme dangers?

The answer is yes: the development of AI does seem somewhat analogous to the rise of nuclear power and nuclear weapons (both by-products of nuclear fission). The discovery and development of nuclear fission led to the nuclear bomb first, then nuclear power roughly six years later.

Nuclear fission is a double-edged sword: its awesome power could wind up destroying people (bombs), or provide a very useful purpose (clean energy with no harmful emissions). AI also seems to have this two-sided nature: extremely beneficial (today and in the near term future), yet potentially dangerous or even destructive to the human race (in the far off future).

But compared with nuclear fission, the good and bad of AI arise in the reverse order. AI is providing useful solutions first (the present day), while the potential existential threat (if one assumes that AI becomes as powerful and lethal as a nuclear bomb, or beyond) most likely will not happen for decades.

Side note: comparing AI with nuclear processes apparently goes in two directions, since a 2019 workshop explored how nuclear fusion could be advanced using machine learning techniques (a subset of AI). Wouldn’t it be a wonderful irony if AI, often compared with the double edged sword of nuclear fission, wound up helping to bring about controlled nuclear fusion in a way that provided unlimited clean energy. The (human) mind boggles at the possibilities.

Safeguards and Ethics Must Play Essential Roles in Future AI

If it really is around 25 years till potentially dangerous AI is developed (or arises on its own), then we should be happy that we have plenty of time to figure out these thorny issues of AI ethics, AI safety, ways of safeguarding AI programs to prevent accidental or purposeful damage to human beings, and related dilemmas.

But we also need the will and foresight to do this in a deliberate, well thought out manner. We must bake AI safeguards and ethics into the advanced-future-AI cake. And we should get the whole world involved in the cooking process.

We’ve come a long way since Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. Those laws were a good start, but it will probably take hundreds of laws and core beliefs, or perhaps thousands, to cover so many human concerns that we effectively put a protective layer or barrier around any future superintelligent AI minds — just like we build protective safeguards into nuclear power plants.

This effort to build effective AI safeguards won’t be easy, since we don’t know the exact trajectory that future AI development will take, or how fast superintelligent minds will arise — and we still have a long way to go to fully understand what dangers a superintelligent AI may pose, and how to control it if it becomes fully developed and deployed.

Fortunately, most predictions say that advanced AI — artificial general intelligence with some form of apparent consciousness — will probably not arrive until at least a couple more decades from now. The year 2045 keeps coming up in predictions related to AI development; some say this will be the year when advanced AI finally arrives, reaching and then surpassing the intelligence level of humans.

But once again, if we see the AI glass as half full, 25 years should be enough time to figure things out, and prevent the dire predictions of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, “Terminator” director  James Cameron, and others from coming true.

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By: Don Rose


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