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.

To Colonize Mars you need Batteries: Elon Musk’s bold vision

I think I’ve figured Elon Musk’s grand plan. He really only ever wanted to colonize Mars, but to do that he understood that you really need a strong safe source of power to be able to do this. I recently read a book called The Martian, which I highly recommend if you’re a huge nerd and love space, where the main character is assumed dead and left behind on Mars. He knows from the very beginning he’ll have to stay alive for the next 400 Sols or so (Martian days). Two things are of paramount concern to him. Power and food. Food is a little harder than the power because he has solar panels, but that’s not going to be very effective for moving him to where he knows he needs to be in those 400 Sols. (This isn’t much of a spoiler, you learn all of this in the first few pages).

So with that in mind, you know that you need to be able to keep power going during massive sand storms, which is the reason why the main character was left on Mars. These can last hundreds of days and greatly reduce the effectiveness of solar panels. Furthermore, getting to Mars is a huge pain, which if you read The Martian, you’ll really understand the full impact of humans trying to get to Mars.

Elon Musk started 3 companies with the express intent of getting to Mars and enabling a colony to survive. First, Space-X, this solves the getting to Mars portion. It’s an effective private space company that has already landed some pretty massive contracts from NASA. The goal of this company is to continually drive down the cost of launching rockets and building capabilities for space travel. The second company is a battery company, Tesla. Yes, I know it’s a car company, but it’s really a battery company. If you wanted to create a vehicle for forcing higher capabilities in battery technology there’s none better than an electric Car. Musk plans to open the Gigafactory to feed the Tesla, but he already plans on using them in other places. He’s offered Boeing his batteries since they are safer than other companies’ batteries. Finally, his solar panel company, Solar City is a method for continually charging those batteries.

Elon Musk isn’t only trying to take out the car companies with Tesla. For the power grid batteries are effectively required to manage a renewable based power grid because there are times of no power from wind or sun. Musk already is deploying battery changing stations across the US. Right now these are powered by the grid and used to store energy. It’s likely he has designed these stations to be bidirectional so the grid can charge the batteries and power can be sent from the batteries to the grid. It’s likely that these stations will be topped with the best of the solar panels that Solar City is able to buy. Forcing more and more investment into higher capability solar panels.

As more Americans start to use Solar City, it’s likely that they will begin to offer batteries, made by Tesla, to help store excess power, some will go to the grid, some will be stored. This will then be sold to the grid during different hours to help stabilize the grid. Effectively, this could lead to a completely decentralized power grid where power companies only maintain the physical grid without generating any power.

As these various companies mature over time, they will continue to push the capabilities of their respective industries. This will have a positive impact on Musk’s true goal of colonizing Mars. He will continually have better and better solar panels to capture the weaker Martian sun. He’ll have more effective power/weight ratio for batteries that will charge almost in an instant. He’ll have a space ship that will get it there effectively and safely.

Elon Musk is building an empire to save humanity from itself. Overall, it’s pretty amazing.