Is AI going to kill or us bore us to death?

The interwebs are split over the question of if AI is going to evolve into brutal killing machines or if AI will simply be just another tool we use. This isn’t a debate being asked by average Joes like you and me, it’s being asked by some pretty big intellectuals. Elon Musk thinks that dealing with AI is like summoning demons, while techno-optimist Kevin Kelly thinks that AI is only ever going to be a tool and never anything more than that, and finally you haveĀ Erik Brynjolfsson an MIT Professor that believes that AI will supplant humanity in many activities but the best results will come with a hybrid approach (Kevin Kelly does use this argument at length in his article).

Personally I think a lot of Kevin Kelly’s position is extremely naive. Believing that AI will ONLY be something that’s boring and never something that can put us at risk is frankly short sighted. Considering that Samsung, yes the company that makes your cell phone, developed a machine gun sentry that could tell the difference between a man and a tree back in 2006. In the intervening 8 years, it’s likely that Samsung has continued to advance this capability. It’s in their national interest as they deployed these sentries at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Furthermore, with drones it’s only a matter of time that we will deploy an AI that will make many of the decisions between bombing and not bombing a given target. Current we have a heuristic, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be developed into a learning heuristic for a piece of software. This software doesn’t have to even be in the driver’s seat at first. It could provide recommendations to the drone pilot and learn from the choices when it is overridden and when it is not. Actually, the pilot doesn’t even have to know what the AI is recommending and the AI could still learn from the pilot’s choices.

AI isn’t going to be some isolated tool, it’s going to be developed in many different circumstances concurrently by many organizations with many different goals. Sure Google’s might be to find better search, but they also acquired Boston Dynamics which has done some interesting work in robotics. They are also working on developing driverless cars, which will need an AI. What’s to say that the driverless AI couldn’t be co-opted by the government and combined with the AI of the drone pilot to drop bombs or to “suicide” whenever it reaches a specific location. These AIs could be completely isolated from each other but still have the capabilities to be totally devastating. What happens when they are combined? They could at some point through a programmer decision or through an intentional attack on Google’s systems. These are the risks of fully autonomous units.

We don’t fully understand how AI will evolve as it learns more. Machine learning is a bit of a Pandora’s box. It is likely that there will be many unintended consequences, similarly to almost any sort of new technology that’s introduced. However, the ramifications could be significantly worse as the AI could have control over many different systems.

It’s likely that both Kevin Kelly and Elon Musk are wrong. However, we should assume that Musk is right while Kelly is wrong. Not because I want Kelly to be wrong and Musk to be right, but because we don’t understand complex systems very well. They very quickly get beyond our capability to understand what’s going on. Think of the stock market. We don’t really know how it will respond to a given quarterly earnings from a company or even across a sector. There are flash crashes and will continue to be as we do not have a strong set of controls over the high frequency traders. If this is extended across a system that has the capability to kill or intentionally damage our economy, we simply couldn’t manage it before it causes catastrophic damage. Therefore, we must intentionally design in fail safes and other control mechanisms to ensure these things do not happen.

We must assume the worst, but rather than hope for the best, we should develop a set of design rules for AI that all programmers must adhere to, to ensure we do not summon those demons.

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