October 2017

RobotThe rise of AI has been met (in some corners) with concern and vitriol. Eminent professor Stephen Hawking was quick to call out the dangers of artificial intelligence, saying that it “could spell the end of the human race.” Others, however, are less gloomy about AI opportunities. This July, both sides of the argument came to a head between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg in what is shaping up to be a battle between two tech billionaires with very different views.

The story so far

We’ve seen the doomsday films and TV shows depicting a world taken over by our robot friends as far back as the 1970s and 80s. Much like the dangers of climate change, we have now reached an AI tipping point where we can either take a step back to assess the potential impacts or plough ahead regardless, potentially to the detriment of the planet.

I’m not pretending that I know what the future holds for AI or that I’ll be able to influence the process. However, it’s natural to take an interest in something that could change all our lives forever. Public fights between the likes of Musk and Zuckerberg help to simplify a subject which by nature is so complex to the point of almost impossible.

So what was said?

So, basically Musk has accused Zuckerberg of not understanding AI. After a brief chat, Musk tweeted: “I’ve talked to Mark about [AI]. His understanding of the subject is limited.”

Zuckerberg rebutted by calling Musk a “naysayer”. He said: “I have pretty strong opinions on this. I am optimistic. I think you can build things and the world gets better. But with AI especially, I am really optimistic.

“And I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios – I just, I don’t understand it.

“It’s really negative, and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible.”

Zuckerberg’s comments were made during an informal Facebook Live chat, in which he also stated that “In the next five to 10 years, AI is going to deliver so many improvements in the quality of our lives.” His optimism clashes with opposing views adopted by the likes of Musk, Hawking and Bill Gates, who have insisted that AI is a threat we should be worried about.

Why we must listen to Musk and Hawking

Seeing two CEOs of Musk and Zuckerberg’s influence is unfamiliar territory. Feelings are clearly running high when it comes to the potentially apocalyptic future of AI, as they should. Some pundits have cynically called the spat as simple “peacocking” to protect their personal brands, but even in today’s divisive world often concerned with wealth-preservation over anything else, we must not lose hope that Musk’s concerns are genuine. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Musk cares about what happens to this planet, from his time as a climate change advisor to his numerous charity projects. None of that points to mere opportunism.

At a recent National Governors Association meeting, Musk said: “I keep sounding the alarm bells…But until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react.”

We must make it clear that Musk is simply advocating for proactive AI regulations to steer progress in the right direction – which sounds sensible. Zuckerberg, on the other hand, discusses AI prospects with the same reckless abandon as a kid in a sweet shop – the same he now applies to Facebook ads and algorithms!

On paper, Zuckerberg is outsmarted by the combination of Musk, Hawking and Gates but who knows what is in his pipeline.

There’s still a lot of misinformation to unpick

It’s true that the same reckless abandon has been applied to the term ‘AI’. An array of devices, gadget and software are lumped into the AI category, when all they really do is run off a few algorithms. It has become almost abstract in its definition, when actually we’re still far from using AI in our daily lives.

We as a species may have created robots that can beat chess champions and take us into space but no machine can yet compete with human intelligence, curiosity and self-learning.

Dozens of firms are currently working on AI developments, from start-ups here in the UK to worldwide mega industries hoping to shape our lives. AI sex-doll companies, for example, are making strides in an industry which is now worth more than $30bn worldwide.

The future of AI isn’t just a billion-dollar debate, it’s a debate for our time – one which we should all join. What are your thoughts on the impacts of AI: a force for good or a disaster waiting to happen?

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