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21 May 2018 by Louise Crouch

Should we be afraid of AI?

Should we be afraid of AI?

Artificial intelligence is one of the least understood and most debated technological breakthroughs of our time. The technology is advancing at an alarmingly fast rate and the notion that it will assist us in almost everything we do is becoming very real. You probably use it already without knowing… think about the automatic spelling correction on your phone and Facebook’s service that automatically highlights faces and suggests friends to tag - that’s AI right there.

But should we be afraid of it? The term Artificial Intelligence comes with heaps of baggage mostly in the form of robots with an evil kill switch that can’t be turned off (storyline of nearly every single Sci-Fi movie right?) In reality, AI is much simpler than that. For most of our lives we have had to adapt to technology, whether that be punching numbers into a phone to make a call or using keyboards to type words onto a computer screen. AI is turning this dynamic on its head by creating technologies that adapt to us, rather than us to them and thus producing new ways to interact with technology that won’t feel like computing at all. We currently only have narrow AI that is designed to perform a specific task, like voice recognition (e.g Siri), but many researchers have their eyes on general (AGI) or strong AI; when a machine could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can. Suddenly hit by a sensation of utter despair that we have lost control and doomsday is well and truly upon us?!

Well, perhaps not. Perhaps we as humans should not look worrying upon our future as passive bystanders when we in fact have the power to shape it. Stephen Hawking once said that we shouldn’t fear that AI will suddenly ‘turn evil’, but fear the danger of it’s misapplication and the devastating effect it could have. "There is great opportunity to improve lives with AI, but if the technology is not developed safely, there is also the chance that someone could accidentally or intentionally unleash an AI system that ultimately causes the elimination of humanity." In short, worry less about the machines themselves and more about the goals of the people making them.

Although the endless possibilities of AI can be scary to us, it should also fill us with excitement. The potential it has to enhance our lives is incredible and very exciting. We can already see it creeping into our day-to-day lives more and more, and the pace of new products and ideas coming to market isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Top companies including Amazon, Facebook and IBM have partnered to create The Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society, a non-profit organisation whose goal is "to ensure that applications of AI are beneficial to people and society."  Amazon’a Paul Misener, Vice President for Global Innovation Policy says, "We believe that artificial intelligence technologies hold great promise for improving the quality of people's lives.”

I believe that what makes AI so scary to us is simply this: it is unknown. Understanding the unknown is the best way to conquer the fear. So let’s talk about it. The bottom line is - we don’t know where AI will take us and it's true abilities. But what I do believe is that the real magic of AI, in the end, won’t be magic at all. AI will be technology that adapts to people, which could be profoundly transformational for all of us.