Serious thinking on AI


Difficult ethical questions have been raised this month after artificial intelligence (AI) was shown to be 91% accurate at guessing whether somebody was gay or straight from a photograph of their face. If a madman with a nuclear weapon is a 20th century apocalypse plot, climate change and AI are the two blockbuster contenders of the 21st. Both play to the tantalisingly ancient theme of humanity’s hubristic desire to be greater, bringing about their own downfall in the process. Barring recent political setbacks, the risks of climate change are no longer controversial. AI, on the other hand, seems to still be.

In Oxford, an ancient city of spires and philosophers, seemingly standing out against technological advance, there is the Future of Humanity Institute. The institute is headed by Nick Bostrom, a philosopher who believes that the advent of artificial intelligence could well bring about the destruction of civilisation. Meanwhile, in the New World, the top ‘schools’ are turning overwhelmingly to the study and development of artificial intelligence. At Stanford University, about 90% of undergraduates now take a computer science course. In Silicon Valley, the religion is one of self-improvement. Optimization (with a ‘z’) is their religion. With a strong culture of obsessing over their own ‘productivity’, it’s little wonder that the promises of AI, the ultimate optimiser, have such a powerful draw on so many brilliant brains on the West Coast.

Back home, Bostrom is a leading source of warnings against AI. His papers have titles like “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards”. It’s clear that he is a man not shy of staring back at the abyss, though I’m not entirely sure what ‘Related Hazards’ we need to be concerned about post-Human Extinction. He’s said that our work on artificial intelligence is “like children playing with a bomb”.

Bostrom extrapolates from the way that humans have dominated the world to highlight the risks of AI. Our brains have capabilities beyond that of the other animals on this planet, and that advantage alone has been distinctive in making us so overwhelmingly the dominant species, and in a relatively tiny amount of time. The dawn of civilisation could be described as a biological singularity, an intelligence explosion. If an artificial brain could be made more powerful than our own, why should we not see a second ‘intelligence explosion’? This brings up the technological singularity – a paradigm in which humans might come to have as little power over our lives as battery farmed chickens do now over theirs. The difference, I suppose, is that chickens didn’t inadvertently create humanity, so Bostrom sees a chance for us to control our creation – we choose how and when to turn it on.

However, AI need not be inherently malignant in order to destroy us. By illustration, one of Bostrom’s fun apocalypse scenarios (another of his light reads is Global Catastrophic Risks) is that of the end of the world by a runaway artificial intelligence algorithm initially designed to help a paperclip factory manufacture as many paperclips as possible. Within seconds, the machine has quite logically reasoned that this would be best achieved by wiping out the human race in order to make a bit more space for paperclip manufacturing, and cheerfully, obediently embarked on its task.

My engineering degree at Oxford is definitely a bit backward. Most of the course seems not to have changed since Alan Turing cracked the Enigma Machine at Bletchley Park. My decision to focus my final year on AI thus makes me – I would like to think – a dangerous maverick. Probably, the professors discuss me in hushed tones, fear mixed equally with reverence. I’m actually extremely grateful for this environment.

Away from the fervent centre of the Religion of Optimisation, it’s far easier to see the bigger picture, without being blinded by the light of enthusiasm. The Laboratory of Applied Artificial Intelligence which I just became part of sits within the Oxford Robotics Institute. The important nuance in this hierarchy is that at Oxford, artificial intelligence is more a prosaic tool to be applied to an end, than a quasi-religious holy grail in itself. Say, making better driverless cars. It is only in very specific, tailored ways like this that artificial intelligence is, and can be, currently used. This concrete embodiment of AI is called Machine Learning, and is nothing more glamorous than particularly clever statistics, run by relatively powerful computers.

It is these mundane algorithms that optimise all online ads to their audience, determine your sexuality from a photo, get your Über driver to you within 2 minutes, or even replace that Über driver altogether. Long before Bostrom’s artificial superintelligence surpasses the human brain and crushes us like ants, civilisation will be tested by the extreme turbulence in lifestyle and employment that will be brought by this far more mundane embodiment of computer intelligence. Besides a bit of philosophy and working out how to unplug a monster brain, we should be considering a far closer future, in which boring machines that can’t even hold a conversation will have nonetheless put most of us out of work.

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