The Truth About AI From the People Building It

This will change the way you see the future.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly transitioning from the realm of science fiction to the reality of our daily lives. Our devices understand what we say, speak to us, and translate between languages with ever increasing fluency. AI-powered visual recognition algorithms are outperforming people and beginning to find applications in everything from self-driving cars to systems that diagnose cancer in medical images. Major media organizations increasingly rely on automated journalism to turn raw data into coherent news stories that are virtually indistinguishable from those written by human journalists.

The list goes on and on, and it is becoming evident that AI is poised to become one of the most important forces shaping our world. Unlike more specialized innovations, artificial intelligence is becoming a true general purpose technology. In other words, it is evolving into a utility—not unlike electricity—that is likely to ultimately scale across every industry, every sector of our economy and nearly every aspect of science, society and culture.

The demonstrated power of artificial intelligence has, in the last few years, led to massive media exposure and commentary. Countless news articles, books, documentary films and television programs breathlessly enumerate AI’s accomplishments and herald the dawn of a new era. The result has been a sometimes incomprehensible mixture of careful, evidence-based analysis, together with hype, speculation and what might be characterized as outright fear-mongering. We are told that fully autonomous self-driving cars will be sharing our roads in just a few years—and that millions of jobs for truck, taxi and Uber drivers are on the verge of vaporizing. Evidence of racial and gender bias has been detected in certain machine learning algorithms, and concerns about how AI-powered technologies such as facial recognition will impact privacy seem well-founded.

Warnings that robots will soon be weaponized, or that truly intelligent (or superintelligent) machines might someday represent an existential threat to humanity, are regularly reported in the media. A number of very prominent public figures—none of whom are actual AI experts—have weighed in. Elon Musk has used especially extreme rhetoric, declaring that AI research is “summoning the demon” and that “AI is more dangerous than nuclear weapons.” Even less volatile individuals, including Henry Kissinger and the late Stephen Hawking, have issued dire warnings.

The purpose of my new book, Architects of Intelligence, is to illuminate the field of artificial intelligence—as well as the opportunities and risks associated with it—by having a series of deep, wide-ranging conversations with nearly two dozen of the world’s most prominent AI research scientists and entrepreneurs. Anyone who is familiar with the field of AI will know the names of the people I spoke with: Geoff Hinton, Ray Kurzweil, Demis Hassabis, Yann LeCun, Fei-Fei Li, Nick Bostrom, Yoshua Bengio, Rodney Brooks and many others. Many of these people have made seminal contributions that directly underlie the transformations we see all around us; others have founded companies that are pushing the frontiers of AI, robotics and machine learning.

What specific AI approaches and technologies are most promising, and what kind of breakthroughs might we see in the coming years? Are true thinking machines—or human-level AI—a real possibility and how soon might such a breakthrough occur? What risks, or threats, associated with artificial intelligence should we be genuinely concerned about? And how should we address those concerns? Is there a role for government regulation? Will AI unleash massive economic and job market disruption, or are these concerns overhyped? Could superintelligent machines someday break free of our control and pose a genuine threat? Should we worry about an AI “arms race,” or that other countries with authoritarian political systems, particularly China, may eventually take the lead?

It goes without saying that no one really knows the answers to these questions. No one can predict the future. However, the AI experts, I’ve spoken to in my book, do know more about the current state of the technology, as well as the innovations on the horizon, than virtually anyone else. They often have decades of experience and have been instrumental in creating the revolution that is now beginning to unfold. Therefore, their thoughts and opinions about the following topics deserve to be given significant weight.


The potential impact of AI and robotics on the job market and the economy.

My own view is that as artificial intelligence gradually proves capable of automating nearly any routine, predictable task—regardless of whether it is blue or white collar in nature—we will inevitably see rising inequality and quite possibly outright unemployment, at least among certain groups of workers. I laid out this argument in my 2015 book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. The individuals I spoke to in my new book offered a variety of viewpoints about this potential economic disruption and the type of policy solutions that might address it. In order to dive deeper into this topic, I turned to James Manyika, the Chairman of the McKinsey Global Institute. Manyika offers a unique perspective as an experienced AI and robotics researcher who has lately turned his efforts toward understanding the impact of these technologies on organizations and workplaces. The McKinsey Global Institute is a leader in conducting research into this area, and this conversation includes many important insights into the nature of the unfolding workplace disruption.


The path toward human-level AI.

From the very beginning, AGI has been the holy grail of the field of artificial intelligence. I wanted to know what each person thought about the prospect for a true thinking machine, the hurdles that would need to be surmounted and the timeframe for when it might be achieved. Everyone had important insights, but I found three conversations to be especially interesting: Demis Hassabis discussed efforts underway at DeepMind, which is the largest and best-funded initiative geared specifically toward AGI. David Ferrucci, who led the team that created IBM Watson, is now the CEO of Elemental Cognition, a startup that hopes to achieve more general intelligence by leveraging an understanding of language. Ray Kurzweil, who now directs a natural language-oriented project at Google, also had important ideas on this topic (as well as many others). Kurzweil is best known for his 2005 book The Singularity is Near. In 2012, he published a book on machine intelligence, How to Create a Mind, which caught the attention of Larry Page and led to his employment at Google.

As part of these discussions, I saw an opportunity to ask this group of extraordinarily accomplished AI researchers to give me a guess for just when AGI might be realized. The question I asked was, “What year do you think human-level AI might be achieved, with a 50 percent probability?” Most of the participants preferred to provide their guesses anonymously. Two people were willing to guess on the record, and these will give you a preview of the wide range of opinions. Ray Kurzweil believes, as he has stated many times previously, that human-level AI will be achieved around 2029—or just eleven years from the time of this writing. Rodney Brooks, on the other hand, guessed the year 2200, or more than 180 years in the future. Suffice it to say that one of the most fascinating aspects of the conversations reported here is the starkly differing views on a wide range of important topics.


The risks that are associated with the progress of artificial intelligence.

One threat that is already becoming evident is the vulnerability of interconnected, autonomous systems to cyber attack or hacking. As AI becomes ever more integrated into our economy and society, solving this problem will be one of the most critical challenges we face. Another immediate concern is the susceptibility of machine learning algorithms to bias, in some cases on the basis of race or gender. Many of the individuals I spoke with emphasized the importance of addressing this issue and told of research currently underway in this area. Several also sounded an optimistic note—suggesting that AI may someday prove to be a powerful tool to help combat systemic bias or discrimination.

A danger that many researchers are especially passionate about is the specter of fully autonomous weapons. Many people in the artificial intelligence community believe that AI-enabled robots or drones with the capability to kill, without a human “in the loop” to authorize any lethal action, could eventually be as dangerous and destabilizing as biological or chemical weapons. In July 2018, over 160 AI companies and 2,400 individual researchers from across the globe—including a number of the people interviewed here—signed an open pledge promising to never develop such weapons.1 Several of the conversations in this book delve into the dangers presented by weaponized AI.

A much more futuristic and speculative danger is the so-called “AI alignment problem.” This is the concern that a truly intelligent, or perhaps superintelligent, machine might escape our control, or make decisions that might have adverse consequences for humanity. This is the fear that elicits seemingly over-the-top statements from people like Elon Musk. Nearly everyone I spoke to weighed in on this issue. To ensure that I gave this concern adequate and balanced coverage, I spoke with Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. Bostrom is the author of the bestselling book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, which makes a careful argument regarding the potential risks associated with machines that might be far smarter than any human being.

The AI experts I interviewed offered varied, and often sharply conflicting, insights, opinions and predictions. Artificial intelligence is a wide open field. The nature of the innovations that lie ahead, the rate at which they will occur, and the specific applications to which they will be applied are all shrouded in deep uncertainty. It is this combination of massive potential disruption together with fundamental uncertainty that makes it especially imperative that we begin to engage in a meaningful and inclusive conversation about the future of artificial intelligence and what it may mean for our way of life.


Adapted from Architects of Intelligence: The Truth about AI from the people building it. Copyright © 2018 by Martin Ford. Published by Packt Publishing.

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