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Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence, Plan For It


Earlier this week, Facebook once again splashed across news headlines with reports that they had shut down one of their artificial intelligence (AI) programs after two computers created a linguistic shorthand to communicate with each other.

The AIs, named Bob and Alice, were attempting to imitate human speech, but found it easier to just create a machine language of their own. The developers working on the project could not understand what the machines were saying, and consequently cancelled it. That’s it. There was no fear they had created a super-intelligent humanity-destroying intelligence, they just couldn’t understand what it was saying and that’s not useful.

What I find interesting though is how quickly bloggers and internet commenters wanted to jump on the doomsday bandwagon. The truth is no superhuman AI is currently in existence, but that’s not to say it won’t come about this century. The key is not to think of it as an existential threat, but rather an event we can plan for and build around.

Why do we need it?

For most of our history we’ve invented technologies to replace our muscles: moving heavy objects, ease of transportations, those kinds of things. It’s only really in the last century we’ve started inventing things to replace our brains: calculators, record keeping software, even predictive models for things like trading and population growth. But things change, and sometimes even the technology we invent can’t keep up.

The purpose of AI will be machines that can learn and adapt to changing circumstances. They’ll be flexible, self-learning, and intuitive. And yeah, they’re going to be better than us at some of these things, probably a lot better. But when you think about it, that’s literally always been the case.

Phonebooks used to be essential, now we have Google. When the refrigerator was invented, it really did a number on the market for ice houses. And I’m sure there were some pretty angry town criers when the printing press started working. But we changed, new technology brought new jobs, lifted us out of the dark ages, and made us more connected than ever.

What we can learn from history though is the importance of doing things safely. Because we do live in a very connected world, and in some ways that makes our information and privacy more secure, but also more vulnerable. As progress in AI continues to make headlines, we should place focus and attention on developing safe, purpose-driven, and controllable technology.

What does “safe” AI look like?

Computers have always been better than us at holding and analyzing vast amounts of information, but what they’ve never been better than us at is knowing what to do with it. As computers reach the point where they start to understand the value and usefulness of a piece of information, it’s important we program into them what values should be applied to what processes.

Computers can watch us, that’s what they’ve been doing is gathering information from our actions, but the key for the future will be to have them watch our behaviors and how we make decisions, because that will teach what we value and how we will expect them to make decisions. Like teaching a child with an infinite amount of information they can access.

“AI services” is a phrase I’ve never heard before but that I am certain will become a household phrase in my lifetime because these machines will need people to direct them, to point to problems and say “solve that”, or to teach what it means to do good so the machines can point themselves. Plenty of jobs will be created by AI, we really don’t need to be afraid of that.

So instead of being afraid of computers, let’s be excited for what they’ll bring and embrace the disciplines that brighten our lives. The arts, design, writing, teaching, social work, sports; I don’t see those jobs going anywhere anytime soon.

Don’t be afraid of AI, embrace it. Because weather you fear it or not chances are we will see early intelligent machines in our lifetimes, and we can make that a doomsday scenario, or we can prepare to meet the future the way we always have.

William McNamara is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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