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How disruptive could machine intelligence be?

Artificial intelligence

31 July 2017

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

A key aspect when trying to understand artificial intelligence 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 been recently 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.

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 (article available here). 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.

Honda prototype robots

What could go wrong?
Recently, Facebook has 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.

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.

SCI is running a free public evening lecture on this fascinating topic, presented by Dr Hermann Hauser. The talk will contrast the biological version of intelligent machines (humans) with artificial design and will consider how AI will fundamentally restructure several major industry sectors, such as cars, finance, and the pharma industry.

The event will be held on Wednesday 25th October 2017 at SCI’s London offices (15 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PS), drinks will be provided and there will be an opportunity to meet with the speaker after the lecture.

Please contact conferences@soci.org to book a place on this free event.

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