Does AI pose a threat to society?
What is AI?
AI is an approach to problem solving which differs significantly from traditional computing.
Say we have a robot in an empty room and we want it to find the door and leave the room. The traditional computing approach to this problem would require programming the robot with specific instructions such as move forward 5 units, turn right by ninety degrees and so on. This approach will work but only for one starting position. It also requires precise knowledge about the location of the door and the starting point of the robot. The AI approach is to give the robot the ability to solve the problem by itself, this solution will work for all starting positions. In this case machine vision might be one possible solution. The robot has the ability to visually scan the room, the AI attempts to distinguish a door from walls and windows. Once it recognises a door it moves in that direction.
This kind of AI is not self-aware nor does it understand the concept of a door or the concept of leaving a room. It was trained to recognise doors and once the door is identified it will attempt to move in that direction.
Warnings about AI
Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have both issued warnings about AI becoming too powerful. Also, earlier this year there was a twitter spat between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg over the risks of AI and then a letter to the UN signed by a number of leading researchers and leaders in the tech industry warning of the dangers of weaponised AI.
Narrow v General
While the concerns being raised about AI becoming too powerful are sensible I think we are still a long way from the self-aware AI of science fiction movies which rises up and builds an army of human hating killing machines. The AI we have now is narrow intelligence – at best it can perform a task to a level which is as good as or better than a human expert. Much of the best AI we have is built around neural networks and the back-propagation algorithm. We will never get to general AI (self-aware machines) from back propagation. Geoffrey Hinton, the inventor of the back-propagation algorithm recently said: 'my view is throw it all away and start again'. It can never lead to true AI. This however does not mean that things like Machine Learning and Neural Nets will have no negative impacts on us. In the next fifteen to thirty years AI could directly affect millions of workers by the loss of jobs to machines. A recent report from PWC predicts that up to 30% of existing jobs in the UK could be automated out of existence, other industrialised countries can expect similar effects or worse. One report from the previous US administration put the figure closer to 50% in the US. If around one third to half of the working age population suddenly finds itself unemployed and possibly unemployable how will they react? AI is also being used in areas such as law enforcement and banking. In the future it may be an algorithm not a person who decides if you are eligible for a loan or if you are likely to commit a crime.
Artificial stupidity is perhaps more dangerous than artificial intelligence at least in the near term. Badly designed and poorly tested algorithms making decisions that impact people in the real world. And good old fashioned human ignorance also poses risks - politicians, business people and the military making decisions about the use of AI even though they don't understand the tech. There is also the danger of AI being hacked, and of hackers developing their own AI.
The way forward
My answer to the title question: 'does AI pose a threat to society?' Is yes it does. But it also offers many potential positives such as advances in medicine, engineering and business.
In the early 19th century a group of English workers, the Luddites, attempted to stop progress by smashing the machinery that was taking away their livelihood. They failed and the technology destroyed their ability to earn money. AI will not be stopped, it will change the world whether people and governments are ready or not.