Risk of AI turning into a sci-fi nightmare?
The short answer: Many scientists and researchers in the field say it’s possible but unlikely.
Even though AI has advanced remarkably over the years and has stunned us with what it can do, it’s going to take a long, long time and a lot of effort to develop sentient machines capable of playing out some kind of Terminator Skynet freak show.
And when we do eventually muster up the ability to fully understand the human brain, consciousness, emotions and so on, majority of those working in the field today have made a public oath to develop the technology responsibly with humanity top of mind.
“I think this is much more science fiction than science reality. We don’t know how the human brain works, we don’t know how consciousness works. So I don’t think that there’s any chance right now that we need to be worried about deep learning taking over the world,” says Coates.
LeCun says there’s always going to be a limit on energy and resources when trying to produce advanced AI in future, meaning the possibility of a technological Singularity is unlikely.
“It can’t just go infinitely fast,” he says.
Toby Walsh, AI researcher at National ICT Australia, says it is unlikely we are going to achieve fully sentient machines in the next 10 years, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table.
“I certainly believe we will [eventually] have this, I don’t see any insurmountable reasons why we wouldn’t,” he says. “It is an issue we have to think about, but it’s not an issue we have to worry about tonight.
“Technically what they talk about in films like RoboCop are possible, but I’m sure society as a whole can work out where we want to end up. You have to start thinking about what those consequences might be because society has to change.”
LeCun says this could become an issue if we develop machines in future that can not only master a wide spectrum of domains or tasks but also be fully autonomous in the sense they are motivated by something. Today, AI machines are still narrow in intelligence and are not programmed to be emotionally driven.
“We are driven by low level needs and instincts, and that’s what makes us do either good things or bad things. What would be the equivalent for a machine? Why would a machine wake up every day and decide to do something?
“Survival isn’t [a driver] unless we build it into it [the machine]. Social interaction could be, but we would have to build that into it as well. Or maximising pleasure and avoiding pain wouldn’t be a motivation unless we build that into the machine.
“So for machines to be dangerous, we would have to build into them some motivations that makes them do stuff that’s counterproductive to us,” he says.
“But if we can do that, then we can also build them to have motivations that make them beneficial to us,” he adds.
Walsh says some philosophers argue that we won’t get true intelligence without emotion, and that some companies are already starting to think about potentially programming AI machines that deal with customer service to empathise with people.
“It’s, ‘I can understand you are getting a bit upset with processing your insurance claim, maybe we should escalate this.’ So you are going to want them to understand emotion. Emotions are going to be a part of the equation but we are not even baby steps towards giving computers emotions yet.
“An interesting question is: Why do we have emotions? What purpose do they have? They must have some value from a Darwinian/natural selection purpose. They must have value, otherwise why else do we have them and why do they govern our lives? They certainly seem to help [be a driver] for survival, right? So maybe they are also useful to give to computers.”
Another issue to think about is jobs, Walsh says. Many will have to evolve or make the transition into new fields that will require them to have some higher level of knowledge. Going to school and just passing, getting a low-to-medium-skilled job and then living comfortably may not be an option in the near future.
“It’s a revolution like the industrial revolution changed the nature of work; it’s another revolution that will surely change the nature of work,” says Walsh.
“The problem is that computers are cheap, reliable, they don’t need holidays, they don’t get sick, they don’t demand pay rises, and they get faster and cheaper every year. What human worker is like that?
“Unfortunately we are struggling to improve our productivity. It’s not clear, certainly in Australia, that we’ve lifted the game well enough. We’ve rested on being able to dig dirt out of the ground and send it to China. And the rest of the world is a cheaper place; we have very expensive employees.”
Walsh adds that economists have discussed the inequalities in wealth that this technological change could bring, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few who have the advanced AI know how or ownership of the technology.
“It’s a question for society to address on how we are going to deal with this. Technology can be used for good and bad, like anything such as nuclear power.
“It [AI] is also so inevitable. If we don’t work on it, the Chinese will, or the Koreans, or the Germans, etc. It’s going to happen. And if Australia is going to compete on the world stage we’re going to have to be part of this.”
Whatever comes out of AI in future, one thing for sure is that we need to always keep humans in the loop, says Alex Zelinsky, chief defence scientist at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO). Just like humans have organised themselves into a hierarchical governing system, the same should apply when dealing with advanced AI machines.
“Even when you look at a human being, no human is totally autonomous. You are in the sense that you can get up in the morning, have a shower and do things yourself. But at the end of the day there are boundaries for you – you can’t break the law, in a company you have always got someone you report to.
“Our unmanned systems are also operating in the same way. The machines may do low level automation tasks, but at the end of the day there’s a human supervisor. Machines will have to fit into a general hierarchy just like we do in society, business and government,” he says.
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