The robots are coming – so what?

What’s the fuss about artificial intelligence?
Rather than being seen as a threat, artificial intelligence should be seen as a force for good, which helps humans solve complex problems. Picture: Shutterstock

This article was first published in the September issue of the Moneyweb Investor. Click here to read the magazine in full, at no cost to your pocket.

If Elon Musk is to be believed, the untempered development of artificial intelligence (AI) poses an existential threat to the survival of the human race. 

He along with the likes of Steven Hawkings raised concerns some two years ago about the world’s seeming headlong rush to research and develop AI technologies.

But recent AI developments seem to have freaked him out further. Most notable was an event in June where an AI system beat the world Go champion. Now Go is an ancient strategy game that is so complex it was believed a computer would never master it. The computer won the game in the 37th round by making a decision based on what some experts call human intuition.

In reality it was not intuition: although the computer only executed one option per move (obviously) it processed the learning of each possible alternative, thus becoming exponentially more intelligent as the game progressed. The computer won the game by making a move that had never been seen before.

It is not difficult to see why this feeds into fears that it’s simply a matter of time before the robots come for us all.

Yet while Musk’s views on the potential negative consequences of AI are well documented, he himself is driving the development of cutting edge AI, from Tesla’s self-driving cars to SpaceX’s rocket engineering, with absolutely no intention of slowing down. The same can be said of Facebook, Google and IBM.

It is clear that there are many people, not just Musk who believe AI will change the future of the world. This is being made possible by improved algorithms, access to growing data sets, ubiquitous network access, massive storage capacity and exponential computing power. With change comes risk. 

All fear mongering does is sow panic in groups of people who are unfamiliar with the technology and this is never constructive. AI (also known as deep learning or machine learning) is developing at breakneck speed, and the genie, I believe, is well out of the bottle.

Rather than letting loose an army of mutant robots on us, AI can be a force for good. Educating the public about what it actually is and does is the first step in managing the risk.  

The colloquial definition of AI is where “a machine mimics the cognitive function of the human mind such as learning and problem solving”. AI draws on subjects like computer science, maths, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and neuroscience and has been around since the 1950s.

While driverless cars and chess games attract media attention, data scientists are quietly using AI to build predictive models to avoid Zika outbreaks, identify infant birth asphyxia, detect online and cross border sex trafficking and prevent the extinction of bees. AI is also a key enabler behind many of the changes that technology is introducing in classrooms, as we discuss in this article.

Its uses are also far more prosaic. For instance, AI is already influencing your buying decisions, hiring and career decisions, and arguably even influences the way you manage your friendships (by profiling certain people on social media).

This might all sound ghastly, but the solution is to be aware of how the world around us is being shaped. Be aware that advertising is very often tailored to your specific likes; that certain careers are being made redundant by computers and that Facebook is managing your friendships.

On another subject entirely, you will notice that The Moneyweb Investor is back! We listened to our readers and are publishing a shorter, sharper version of the original on a fortnightly basis. The publishing platform is different too, making it easier to navigate, download, print and share stories.

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