It feels like artificial intelligence crept into our lives almost without us knowing, helping us pick movies on Netflix, our favourite tunes on Spotify and buy things on Amazon.
As it gets older and smarter, AI’s reach will be staggering, with experts at the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum predicting there’s a 50-per-cent chance artificial intelligence will outperform humans in all tasks in 45 years.
Consider the ways it’s already at work in our lives. There is face recognition to unlock our phones; fraud detection on credit cards; smart homes that call Uber, dim lights and lower the heat; fridges that give us recipes when we pull something out for dinner, and stoves that begin to preheat (because they talk to the fridge). All possible because AI – or “deep learning” technology – sorts and identifies huge swaths of data and connects the dots (or thinks) for us.
In Davos, the big thinkers believe that in the next five to 25 years, AI will help teach kids in the classroom (there are already AI teaching assistants at some universities), write a Top 40 pop song and pen a New York Times bestseller. It might even give the family dog a bit of competition.
“People come home from work, feed and walk their dog, and they get positive feelings from that interaction,” says Kory Mathewson, a biomedical engineer and PhD candidate in computing at the University of Alberta. “Eventually, we could be taking care of robots in similar ways. Teaching them how to talk and interact with our friends. It’s not that a robot is going to be a perfect servant for us. It’s just going to be a new relationship and a different way of interacting.”
In other words, there is a steep learning curve on the horizon for both humans and machines. And a great deal at stake. By 2025, Merrill Lynch predicts the AI technology industry will value about US$127-billion, a huge jump from roughly US$2-billion in 2015.
However, in the midst of all the technological giddiness about the wonders of AI there is a growing chorus of voices – scientists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and the like – who are advising the coders in Silicon Valley to slow down a little.
“The specialists are saying it’s all good – that AI is quite creative and capable of immense discovery,” says Leah Govia, a masters student in public-issues anthropology at the University of Waterloo who is researching AI’s impact on cultures and ethics. “But to them, it’s all algorithms and codings… I think we should be actively considering what we also might be missing. Our decisions are being fast-tracked through these technologies and we should be mindful of blurring the lines of our autonomy and our ability to act independently.”
She says the techies, the business people and the academics should be paying equal attention to the existential questions: How, in the face of superintelligence, do we stay relevant? How do we ensure we invite AI in and not have it imposed on us? How do we keep some parts of life AI-free so we can make blunders, make our own discoveries and live serendipitously?
Catherine Stinson, a postdoctoral scholar at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, believes the responsibility lies with all of us to consider the “what-ifs.”
“Sometimes it feels like we’re starting to lose control,” says Stinson, a former machine-learning researcher who teaches a class about the social and ethical implications of AI in health care at UWO. “AI [products] will be driven by the companies making it, and profits. We may not get to choose what kind of tech we get, but we will still have some autonomy to not use it, at least in our personal lives. I guess our lives will be tech heavy, but there will also be holdouts who prefer a less tech-involved life. Those people may become more isolated, or maybe more people will join them.”
In Alberta, Mathewson is enamoured with the wonders of AI and has few reservations its long-term benefits to our everyday lives. Still, he agrees that “it’s essential if we’re building predictive machines that we should also be predicting how these machines will play out and what the negative repercussions could be. Whenever society confronts huge change – automobiles, the Internet, etc. – there are reasons to go slow.”
An early specialist in the AI field, Mathewson says the intuitive technology has enriched his life in ways he never imagined. In a recent trip to the Brighton Fringe arts festival in England, he performed improv comedy with his AI sidekick – an adorable little white robot named Blueberry – whose education included the download of dialogue from 102,000 Hollywood films. “AI will eliminate the tedious tasks and give us more time to spend on our creative endeavors, to find new avenues of exploration and discoveries. It will make us look at ourselves in different ways.”
The marriage of AI and humans. It all sounds rather utopic. Still, one wonders if robots such as Blueberry would catch the irony of Jeff Goldblum’s classic line in 1993’s Jurassic Park: “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The cloned dinosaurs were out of control and wreaking havoc. And the humans, well, they hadn’t considered all the what-ifs.