Ev­ery­one should join the AI de­bate

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment re­cently an­nounced plans for a mas­sive in­vest­ment and re­search pro­gram aimed at turn­ing the coun­try into the world leader in ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence by 2030. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence rep­re­sents the lat­est goal in a tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion that in re­cent decades has changed not only the world but also the way we live, work and com­mu­ni­cate.

It is a field in which China aims to catch up with com­peti­tors such as the United States by 2020 and over­take them in the sub­se­quent decade to make AI a driver of its eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion.

The prom­ises of AI sound im­pres­sive, but what ex­actly is it?

Most or­di­nary peo­ple can get their heads around the con­cept of the self-drive car and ap­pre­ci­ate its po­ten­tial ad­van­tages. For many, how­ever, the prospect of ma­chines one day be­ing more in­tel­li­gent than hu­mans con­jures up sci­ence fiction fore­bod­ings of a night­mar­ish world in which the same ma­chines ac­tu­ally take over.

Even tech ex­perts are di­vided over the di­rec­tion that AI de­vel­op­ment should take if we are to avoid the po­ten­tial pit­falls.

Elon Musk, CEO of the car and rocket gi­ants Tesla and SpaceX, re­cently said, only half-jok­ingly, that the rea­son hu­mans should col­o­nize Mars was to pro­vide a refuge from the think­ing robots des­tined to take over the world. The bil­lion­aire AI-skep­tic is wor­ried that hu­mans could ac­ci­den­tally stum­ble onto tech­nolo­gies that could lead to their own de­struc­tion. As early as 2014, he de­scribed AI as hu­mankind’s big­gest ex­is­ten­tial threat.

Sim­i­lar warn­ings have been sounded by Stephen Hawk­ing.

Some tech in­no­va­tors are more re­laxed. Ray Kurzweil, a lead­ing tech de­vel­oper, is con­fi­dent that sen­si­ble con­trols can head off the prospect of night­mare sce­nar­ios. He has cited ad­vances in biotech­nol­ogy, which was once re­garded as a po­ten­tial threat by those alarmed by the prospect of sci­en­tists tam­per­ing with hu­man DNA.

Kurzweil has writ­ten that biotech guide­lines es­tab­lished over sev­eral decades had worked very well. “There have been no sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems, ac­ci­den­tal or in­ten­tional, for the past 39 years,” he wrote in a 2014 blog. “We are now see­ing ma­jor ad­vances in med­i­cal treat­ments reach­ing clin­i­cal prac­tice and thus far none of the an­tic­i­pated prob­lems.”

The ar­gu­ments of Kurzweil and oth­ers that hu­mans have faced ex­is­ten­tial chal­lenges in the past and some­how over­come them are com­fort­ing. Most in­no­va­tions since the dawn of time have had a po­ten­tial for good and evil. The cave­man’s spear could be used to catch din­ner or an­ni­hi­late his neigh­bor.

The four great in­ven­tions of an­cient China were the com­pass, pa­per, print­ing and gun­pow­der. It’s an­other mat­ter that we might be bet­ter off if the last one had been re­served for mak­ing fire­works rather than be­ing de­vel­oped by oth­ers for the in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of war.

But, as most of us would con­cede, you can’t stop progress. AI will sooner or later be­come a re­al­ity, and one pos­i­tive sign is that sci­en­tists world­wide are col­lab­o­rat­ing to en­sure it is not mis­used.

Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy be­gan col­lab­o­rat­ing with Ts­inghua Univer­sity and other Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tions over the past decade on AI and other high­tech fields. In a 2010 re­port, MIT said: “If we are go­ing to be in­volved in the res­o­lu­tion of global prob­lems — whether sus­tain­able cities, cli­mate change, re­source de­ple­tion, dis­ease con­trol or any other — we have to be able to un­der­stand and en­gage part­ners in China.”

With China set to take the lead in AI re­search, it and its in­ter­na­tional part­ners will also be look­ing at the po­ten­tial dis­rup­tive con­se­quences of the new tech­nol­ogy in terms of job re­place­ment and global se­cu­rity.

As Fei-Fei Li, AI ex­pert and chief sci­en­tist of Google Cloud, re­cently told Xin­hua News Agency, AI could be used to ben­e­fit hu­man­ity or cause it big prob­lems. Ev­ery­one should be in­volved in the de­bate, she said. “Sil­i­con Val­ley lead­ers, pro­fes­sors, stu­dents, pol­i­cy­mak­ers, law­mak­ers, ed­u­ca­tors ... ev­ery­body should be at the ta­ble dis­cussing this.”

The au­thor is a se­nior edi­to­rial con­sul­tant for China Daily. har­vey­mor­ris@gmail.com

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