Speaking at a programmer’s conference this past summer, Bill Gates referred to AI as the “Holy Grail of Computer Science research”, illustrating how scientists from all fields of study are working to create intelligent machines as a tool for humanity.
However, fears over creating smart machines that will enslave humanity persist. Is it possible to change the popular view of technology as inevitably evil by encouraging a more profound understanding of how AI works and its potential to assist us in our daily lives?
AI seems to have an ever-increasing influence on how our world works, from Facebook‘s facial recognition software for image tagging to spellcheck.
Other big technology companies like Google also use AI extensively, and the expectation is that AI will revolutionize industries and will continue to supplement work that humans no longer (have to) do themselves.
However, because automation is beginning to eliminate thousands of human jobs each year and investments in AI research and start-ups is exploding, many fear the rise of Matrix-style machines.
AI Revolutionizes Industries
Traditional computers, while powerful, lack the capacity to be self-aware or make independent decisions. AI, in contrast, can make decisions on its own and even adapt to new rules without being prompted to do so.
Therefore, AI already demonstrates some ability to understand the environment and become self-aware. With this realization, the assumption is that the machine will be more efficient at solving complex problems and doing large volumes of calculations as quickly as possible.
For example, Google uses AI to deliver better search engine results and even experiment with self-driving cars.
In addition, Facebook also uses AI to optimize customer experience on its social media sites.
Amazon, for its part, uses intelligent robots in its warehouses to collect items for packaging.
In the manufacturing industry, AI driven machines can do everything from coordinate whole production lines to carrying out the smallest and most menial tasks.
The evidence of broad adoption of AI is there, but for the average person, AI might appear a distant and abstract concept. However, we engage AI every time we ask Google to help us find a good fried chicken joint.
Despite the benefits of AI, it continues to be treated with suspicion due, in part, to Hollywood depictions of hyper-aggressive intelligent robots harvesting our bodies for energy.
In the Terminator movies, for example, robot assassins are sent by Skynet, an AI defense network that seeks to exterminate the human race.
Even when a company’s goal is to use AI to improve the quality of human life, they must account for consumer suspicion. Distrust and anxiety make it harder to garner interest in many AI-powered technologies, perhaps because fear is often a product of a lack of understanding or a lack of information.
“we won’t stop needing technology until we run out of problems” -Tim O’reilly
Could SkyNet Become a Reality?
Technologies (like AI) are a tool, and tools are neither inherently good or bad. Instead, their merit depends on how we use them. AI is a tool that, so far, seems to be making life easier and safer.
For instance, the adoption of self-driving cars has the potential to save thousands of lives lost every year from traffic accidents – again depending on how the technology is used. Furthermore, AI can save the lives of patients through better, earlier diagnosis brought by seamless access to medical data.
These AI applications are limited and highly specialized, however. Until someone desires to build a machine hellbent on world domination, it is unlikely that an AI would choose that path.
According to Tim O’Reilly via Data Center Frontier, “we won’t stop needing technology until we run out of problems”. As people continue to innovate and complicate their personal and professional lives, more simple tasks are being automated behind the scenes.
As long as machines can complete these tasks for us, their use is inevitable. For now, it seems that Hollywood fears won’t stop AI research and development.
At the end of the day, understanding is our most effective weapon against the fear accompanies ignorance.