This article is part of Demystifying AI, a series of posts that (try to) disambiguate the jargon and myths surrounding AI.
Where will humans fit in a world where robots outsmart them? This is the focus of a heated debate between thought leaders and tech billionaires.
Some believe we’re steadily meandering toward an AI apocalypse, where humans are either obliterated or enslaved by robots, and we must act quickly to prevent it. Others will tell you that artificial intelligence will always be the subservient best friend of mankind, even when it outwits its creators, and we should move ahead with developing AI at full speed.
At every industrial revolution, there’s a dystopian and a utopian vision of the future. And there’s no arguing that we are at the doorsteps—or in the midst—of the biggest technological revolution of mankind’s history, where everything is being connected to the internet, data is in abundance and AI algorithms are permeating every domain.
What will eventually unfold is hard to tell. The future always holds surprises. But here’s the best- and worst-case scenarios.
WALL-E: AI utopia
The AI utopia camp has some very strong advocates, including DeepMind’s Demis Hassabis and Google’s Peter Norvig. Norvig addresses one of concepts that sits at the heart of the AI debate: general and super artificial intelligence, when AI’s capabilities to reason and decide become rival or become superior to those of human beings.
This is a development that can be both exciting and frightening. Some think it will happen before the turn of the century. Some, like Norvig, believe we shouldn’t even be discussing it.
“We know how to build real intelligence—my wife and I did it twice, although she did a lot more of the work,” he said in an interview with Forbes. “We don’t need to duplicate humans. That’s why I focus on having tools to help us rather than duplicate what we already know how to do. We want humans and machines to partner and do something that they cannot do on their own.”
Here’s a hypothetical account to how the AI utopia will develop:
As AI becomes expands into every industry, more and more tasks that previously required human effort and thinking will become semi- or fully automated. Thanks to AI-powered tools, humans will become more productive and be able to perform a multitude of complicated tasks with less effort and education.
As AI becomes smarter and more efficient, the role of humans will become less and less significant, and they will eventually be fully replaced by AI algorithms. As humans are removed, costs will gradually drop, and (hopefully) with them prices. For instance, the cost much to maintain a self-driving taxi is much less than the wages paid to cab drivers.
At one point, when we achieve a fully automated and self-sustaining economy with little or no human effort involved, costs will vanish altogether. Then the value and meaning of money will change forever because people won’t need to work or make money at all to make a living.
What will humans do then? The Disney animation WALL-E paints a picture of the AI utopia, where humans are being pampered by robots. That might be a bit extreme. Demis Hassabis, the scientist from DeepMind, believes AI will answer that question. “We could one day attain a better understanding of what makes us unique, including shedding light on such enduring mysteries of the mind as dreaming, creativity and perhaps one day even consciousness,” Hassabis wrote in an op-ed recently published in Financial Times.
But the road to the AI utopia is rocky. Advances in AI will cause a major disruption in the employment landscape, displacements that will challenge the very foundations that are running the global economy. Until such day where money becomes a thing of the past, the needs of the people who will lose their jobs, the cab and truck drivers, the McDonalds employees, accountants, lawyers (and the president maybe?),etc, will have to be addressed, lest we head for the disaster scenario.
Matrix and Terminator: AI dystopia
The AI dystopia camp also has some very strong supporters, even in the tech industry, including the likes of Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking.
At a recent gathering of U.S. governors, Musk stressed that governments need to regulate AI before it spins out of control. “I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal,” Musk said.
Speaking at Cambridge University last year, Hawking warned that while AI can be pivotal to solving problems such as disease and poverty, it can also be the greatest disaster in human history if it is not properly managed.
There are varying predictions to how AI dystopia will develop, but here is a scenario that you’ll probably read about a lot:
For the time being, advances in AI are still reliant on human scientists and engineers. But at some point, humans will crack the code of artificial general intelligence, the self-conscious AI that will be able to develop and advance itself without the help of humans.
AGI will develop artificial super intelligence, the AI that is orders of magnitude stronger and more capable than the human brain. At that point, humans will probably become a nuisance to AI, and will either be turned into their slaves as in the movie Matrix, or their enemy as in the movie Terminator.
In fact, Musk is already planning for the day when humans will no longer be able to live among robots.
That’s a bit over the edge, but there are more realistic ways that AI can lead to apocalypse. One is the wedge that AI is driving through social classes. As AI algorithms generate more revenue, conquer more jobs and put more people out of work, a limited number of people, those who are running giant tech corporations, will grow richer while the lives of the rest will spiral down into poverty. This will eventually lead to the doomsday scenario that super-rich are fearing, when the pitchforks come knocking at their doors.
Another would be the political weaponization of artificial intelligence, which is much more dangerous than its military uses. We’re heading toward an era where AI algorithms and prescriptive analytics can affect your every action and decision. We’re already seeing how the algorithms that are determining what is displayed on social media feeds and search results are affecting public opinion. What if a malicious actor, such as a despotic regime, decided to employ “big data nudging” and alter all these algorithms to its advantage. Then it would be able to manipulate the the masses without the need to use force and incite rebellion. What would it mean for democracy?
The list goes of dystopian scenarios goes on.
Ironically, there are too many ways that artificial intelligence can go wrong and too few that it can go right. My personal opinion: The future will be much more different from what we expect, but I’m leaning on the positive side and hoping for the best. How do you think things will unfold?