Elon Musk, who made headlines in December by likening research in artificial intelligence to “summoning the demon”, has backed his play with hard cash, donating $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to fund research that could reorient the industry towards the improvement of human life, which is now only one of its many goals. Stephen Hawking had endorsed Musk’s fears, pointing out that since humans would evolve much slower than autonomous machines, they would become history in a Darwinian holocaust.
The market for expert systems, standalone intelligences and machines which use data in unprecedented quantities and possibly unforeseen ways is expected to explode into a new industry segment. A few days ago Musk, along with Hawking, also led a signature campaign among AI specialists which calls for giving direction to the technology. Instead, the industry has been focused on how AI can be monetised. The fear is that the technology is being made ready to market before its human implications are completely understood. Also, safety has been in question since Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics. Can an autonomous entity loosed into the wild be recalled for a programming error, like automobile manufacturers do when they detect a design flaw?
For about a century, science-fiction has been mining the fear, like a vein of rich ore, that machines can make humans extinct. But the real issues have received insufficient attention. For instance, what would be the social implications of leisure, which must result if machines take over human work? Would cessation of manual work create a new leisure class? Such political questions need to be probed with the same diligence as the industry applies to developing machines that can perform human tasks inhumanly fast, and even teach themselves to do them better. AI may change human history more profoundly than antibiotics and nuclear physics, and its effects must be urgently understood, in advance.
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