The Brain Debate: what are the pros and cons of artificial intelligence?

artificial intelligence

There are some very good questions being asked about artificial intelligence, and some very good answers on both sides from some very intelligent people. But which do you find more convincing? The Drum presents the case for and against as part of a recently published issue of the magazine, guest edited using AI.

Is AI a threat to the human race as we know it?

PRO: Chris Bishop, director of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, said earlier this year that he believes the hyperbole around the AI risks could jeopardise any future developments that may in fact assist humanity.

“Any scenario in which AI is an existential threat to humanity is not just around the corner,” he told the Guardian.

Referring to the views of high-profile cynics like professor Stephen Hawking, Bishop said: “I think they must be talking decades away for those comments to make any sense. Right now we are in control of that technology and we can make lots of choices about the paths that we follow.”

Oren Etzioni, chief executive of the Allen Institute for AI and professor of computer science at the University of Washington, meanwhile says the popular dystopian vision of AI is wrong because it “equates intelligence with autonomy”.

“It assumes a smart computer will create its own goals, and have its own will, and will use its faster processing abilities and deep databases to beat humans at their own game,” he told Marginal Revolution last year. “It assumes that with intelligence comes free will, but I believe those two things are entirely different.”

Con: During a Reddit AMA session last year, Stephen Hawking said he believed AI could pose a risk to humanity, not because of “malice” but rather “competence”.

“A super-intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals,” the physicist noted, “and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”

“You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants.”

Telsa and SpaceX founder Elon Musk joins Hawking in thinking that as a society we should be “very careful” about AI.

Dubbing the rise of the machine as the “biggest existential threat” to life as we know it, in 2014 Musk warned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students of the dangers of AI during a talk at the AeroAstro Centennial Symposium.

“I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure we don’t do something very foolish,” he said.

Will the robot army rise up and steal our jobs?

Pro: Fortune magazine’s senior editor-at-large, Geoff Colvin, doesn’t think so. Writing in the New York Times in March after Google’s AlphaGo defeated Go champion Lee Se-dol, Colvin said that while scaled-up AI will change the nature of high-value human skills, we “aren’t doomed” quite yet.

“I don’t believe, as some do, that human defeats like this one presage an era of mass unemployment in which awesomely able computers leave most of us with nothing to do,” he noted. “Advancing technology will profoundly change the nature of high-value human skills and that is threatening, but we aren’t doomed.”

He argued that profoundly human traits and skills that require deep human interaction, such as empathy, will only become more valuable in the midst of the machine uprising.

Meanwhile, Matthew E Taylor, a computer scientist at Washington State University, doesn’t see robots taking over as a bad thing – as long as machines take on the right jobs. As far as he’s concerned, AI tech should target professions that are “dirty, dangerous or dull – jobs that we don’t want people to have”.

Con: According to Gary Marcus, professor of cognitive science at New York University (NYU), the appeal of workers that can compute tasks in seconds without the need to take a rest will undoubtedly stand to change the human workforce.

“There might be a few jobs left for entertainers, writers, and other creative types, but computers will eventually be able to program themselves, absorb vast quantities of new information, and reason in ways that we carbon-based units can only dimly imagine. And they will be able to do it every second of every day, without sleep or coffee breaks,” Marcus noted in the New Yorker in 2013.

LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman agrees, arguing that advancements in technology could pave the way for AI to weave its way into more ‘human’ professions.

“AI systems will increasingly perform functions that were once handled by lawyers, doctors, journalists and virtually every other kind of knowledge worker, along with factory workers, truck drivers and taxi drivers, retail personnel and more,” he wrote in Time last September.

Can AI help address some of the world’s most pressing problems, or will it worsen issues such as inequality and poverty?

Pro: Rollo Carpenter, creator of AI system Cleverbot, thinks AI will be used as a force for good. Speaking to the BBC in response to Hawking’s “end of the human race” warning, Carpenter was instead of the opinion that humans will remain in charge of the AI tech “for a decently long time”.

“The potential of it to solve many of the world’s problems will be realised,” he added.

Science authors Dr Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler agree. The duo explained in their book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, that AI could “save lives on a massive scale”.

“Machines of the future could help create an abundance of resources in parts of the world where they are in short supply, producing crops and operating on patients in third-world countries, among other endeavours.”

Con: “Driverless cars, robotic helpers and intelligent agents have the potential to usher in a new age of affluence and leisure – but the transition may be protracted and brutal, roiling job markets and increasing income inequality,” warned futurist and entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan ahead of a talk at this year’s SXSW.

Hawking agrees that AI will hinder rather than help the problem of “ever increasing inequality”.

He told Redditors that AI may enable everyone to enjoy a life of “luxurious leisure” but only if “the machine-produced wealth is shared”. The alternative, in his opinion? “Most people will end up miserably poor if the machine owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution.”

“So far, the trend seems to be towards the second option, with technology driving ever increasing inequality,” he noted.

This article was first published in The Drum's AI issue, guest edited using IBM Watson technology.

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