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Artificial intelligence (AI) – the ability of any man-made device to perceive its environment, identify a goal, and take rational actions to that end – can seem like a concept of science fiction. Recently, however, exponential growth in the field, with developments such as driverless cars, has made the prospect very real. The pace of change has led many to express concern about the dangers of artificial AI, although most of the potential benefits are yet to be realised.

A key aspect when trying to understand AI is knowledge of ‘machine learning’. Previously, software had to be ‘taught’ everything by the programmer, but this is no longer the case. DeepMind, one of the world’s leading groups in developing artificial intelligence, has seen considerable investment from high profile figures such as Elon Musk and has recently been acquired by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

 

DeepMind claims to have developed software that mimics human imagination by considering the possible consequences of their actions and interpreting the results, ignoring irrelevant information. This allows the software to plan ahead, solving tasks in fewer steps and performing much better than conventional AI.

Could machines become better than humans?

There is plenty to suggest that AI, if managed correctly, could positively benefit society, tackling issues such as global warming and healthcare. On the other hand, sceptics argue that the developments in AI will drastically disrupt many industries. 

A decade ago, truck drivers were thought to be irreplaceable; now, Tesla and many other companies are making autonomous self-driving cars a reality. The pharmaceutical industry may also see immense changes; incredibly complex computational biological models will soon be able to fully predict drug mechanisms and interactions, allowing for much better analysis and speeding up the currently painstakingly slow clinical trial process for new drugs.

 Ubers selfdriving car

Uber’s self-driving car being testing in Pittsburgh. Image: Rex

It isn’t only drivers that are at risk of losing their jobs. Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that, just like the industrial revolution lessened the requirement for manual labour, the AI revolution will create vast amounts of unemployable people as their skills become redundant. 

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne from the University of Oxford predict that 47% of jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computer algorithms by 2033. Their list of jobs is striking – insurance underwriters, chefs, waiters, carpenters, and lifeguards are all at high risk of being superfluous. The displacement of human workers because of AI will be one of the key issues that policymakers and governments must consider going into the future.

 Elon Musk

Elon Musk, Founder of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla, Inc. Image: TED Conference

What could go wrong?

Facebook had to shut down its most recent AI system after it discovered that its chatbots were communicating between themselves in a new language that used English words but could not be understood by humans. Although the AI agents were rewarded for negotiating efficiently, they were not confined to just using English. The result was that they deviated from it and instead opted to create a language that was easier and faster for them to communicate, causing the social media giant to pull the plug on the system.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal, has very strong views about the development of AI, famously stating that AI is an ‘existential risk for human civilisation’. He raises interesting questions about cybersecurity and malicious AI that may be exploited by hackers to destabilise the outdated and less intelligent software that often controls the electricity and water of the world’s cities.

Above: Musk in Conversation with Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence 

AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive because ‘if we’re reactive in AI regulation it’s too late’, he said. At the moment, the technology is far from the apocalyptic, self-evolving software that haunts Musk. But we are becoming more and more accustomed to AI in our daily life; for example, Apple’s Siri interpreting voice commands and Facebook’s targeted advertising system.


 Hermann Hauser

Hermann Hauser Image: Franz Johann Morgenbesser

Interested in AI?

SCI is running a Public Evening Lecture in London on Wednesday 25 October – Machine Intelligence: Are Machines Better than Humans? The talk will be given by Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, Acorn Computers, and ARM. It is free to attend, but spaces are limited. Don’t miss out – book your place here.