Tags: Emerging Threats

The Scary Side of Artificial Intelligence

By Tuesday, 19 May 2015 04:15 PM Current | Bio | Archive

In January of 2015, a number of fearful experts signed a letter published by the Future of Life Institute, entitled, “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence: an Open Letter.” It urges that research in artificial intelligence be kept on the track of “maximizing the societal benefit of AI.”

This plea is in opposition to, presumably, some scary science fiction scenarios, what Stanford University’s white paper entitled “One-Hundred Year Study of Artificial Intelligence” refers to as a “Loss of Control of AI systems.” This could include anything from autonomous weapons creating too much collateral damage in wartime to hogging the limelight on TV quiz shows.

Lest researchers in the field suffer from a lack of imagination, the letter even has an attached document entitled “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence,” giving examples of prospective benign areas of AI research such as labor market forecasting, and using “AI-generated wealth” to “support underemployed populations” — that would pretty much be all of us, don’t you think?

Even the venerable professor Stephen Hawking has joined this ominous Greek chorus, telling the BBC that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” not to mention the end of scientific discoveries by human physicists such as Hawking.

Hollywood has given AI and computers a generally bad rap in many films over the years: The HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Colossus from “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), the resort androids that malfunction and start killing patrons in “Westworld” (1973), and the government super computer that confuses game theory simulations with the real world and nearly plays a game of Global Nuclear War for real in “WarGames” (1983).

AI is not always a threat in the popular imagination, so long as it is imbued in a lovable character. Take 1957’s “The Invisible Boy,” for example, where an annoying ten-year-old teams up with the amiable Robby the Robot — fresh from his 1956 debut in the movie “Forbidden Planet” — to stop a super computer bent on moving to a satellite and controlling the world.

Then there’s the Feb. 28, 1958 episode of the NBC-TV series, “The Thin Man” entitled “Robot Client.” Private eyes Nick and Nora Charles (played by Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk) visit a scientist who attempts to demonstrate his robot invention (again played by the ubiquitous Robby the Robot), only to have the robot show up carrying a murdered corpse, making it the prime suspect.

Nick spends the rest of the episode getting his electro-mechanical client off the hook. (Robby, by the way, went on to rack up 24 acting credits in films and TV.)

One could go on and on listing scenarios both good and bad concocted by the fertile imaginations of both fantasy writers and scientists. Much fear in both science and pop culture is a fear of the unknown.

At a May 5, 1988 book signing in Manhattan’s B. Dalton bookstore at Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street, science fiction writer and general purpose genius Isaac Asimov told Yours truly that once a machine can figure out a way of building another machine with even slightly greater capabilities that itself, within a number of generations a super-intelligent “ultimate” machine will make its appearance.

What would that be like? No one knows, yet. Asimov ‘s 1942 short story “Runaround” unveiled his now-famous Three Laws of Robotics to be somehow encoded into every intelligence device:
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
Whenever I would bring up with the subject of the use of AI in the world of jurisprudence, my attorney friends would insist that humans give “special individual attention” to each case — which is perhaps why an academic study of 58,000 federal criminal cases by M. Marit Rehavi of the University of British Columbia and Sonja B. Starr, who teaches criminal law at the University of Michigan Law School, reveals that African-Americans’ jail time is nearly 60 percent longer than white sentences.

In reality, we can see that the more dire predictions about AI illustrate what’s called psychological projection. Fearing the negative aspects of what we could do with enhanced intelligence and ability, we project them onto our speculations concerning AI and robots.

Does this reveal AI and robots as actually harmless? Not at all. Indeed, the act of instilling ethics and morality in intelligent machines will doubtless be as difficult as it is with humans. Heaven help us.

Richard Grigonis is an internationally known technology editor and writer. He was executive editor of Technology Management Corporation’s IP Communications Group of magazines from 2006 to 2009. The author of five books on computers and telecom, including the highly influential Computer Telephony Encyclopedia (2000), he was the chief technical editor of Harry Newton's Computer Telephony magazine (later retitled Communications Convergence after its acquisition by Miller Freeman/CMP Media) from its first year of operation in 1994 until 2003. Read more reports from Richard Grigonis —
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Fearing the negative aspects of what we could do with enhanced intelligence and ability, we project them onto our speculations concerning AI and robots. Does this reveal AI and robots as actually harmless? Not at all.
Emerging Threats
Tuesday, 19 May 2015 04:15 PM
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