(Contains ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ spoilers)
“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
This memorable line from the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, comes from a super-fast sentient computer called HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) on board a spaceship travelling to Jupiter. It was programmed to look after its crew and ensure the success of the mission. However, after discovering the human crew intend to shut it down, it decides to silently kill one of the astronauts. After Dave attempts a rescue, HAL calmly tells him that he is unable to open the ship’s doors to dock, effectively trying to kill him too. A single, unwavering red eye stares down Dave meanwhile shutting off the life support of the remaining crew members.
It’s partly thanks to films like this that the possibility of artificial intelligence turning against us is solidified in the public conscience. It’s not alone; numerous other high profile media forms portray the possibility of this dystopian future; the famous Skynet system from the Terminator series, the Machines from the Matrix trilogy, and GLaDOS from the Portal games to name a few.
However, the idea of a creation intended for good turning on its creator can be traced back further than big Hollywood blockbusters. Literature is littered with stories of accidental monsters. The creation of Satan himself in Christianity was the result of an angel gone wrong. Frankenstein’s monster in the novel by Mary Shelley in 1818, one of the first science fiction books, is another classic example. The thought of malevolent, uncontrollable artificial intelligence is a terrifying and common one, but how likely is it?
Ethics of AI
Perhaps it would be wise to start with the question of how artificial intelligence should be programmed. One of the first tentative ideas comes from the Three Laws of Robotics written up by the sci-fi author Isaac Asimov over 7 decades ago in 1942. These are a set of rules by which robots are created within novels of his. They state that no robot shall harm or kill a human being directly or indirectly, that the robot must obey human orders, and finally that the robot should protect its own existence as long as it does not conflict with the previous two laws. Though these seem practical and that they could be implemented from an outsider’s perspective, these were originally only ever intended to be a literary tool by which to create dynamic sci-fi novels, and were not created by a scientist with knowledge of AI.
It’s worth noting that when ethics of AI are discussed, it is the ethics of robots or humanoid robots that people tend to think of immediately. Although there is huge investment in humanoid robotics, AI are far more prevalent in other fields that you might not expect, such as targeted Facebook ads and data mining from metadata collection by governments. Ethical frameworks of purely physical harm or death to humans are useless in situations like this and if talking about other types of harm such as breach of privacy, it is difficult to decide what is constitutes ‘harm’ and what does not.
AI of the future
The future generation of AI however lies in a process called machine learning. This is where AI is able to look at a set of data, learn from it and use that knowledge to change its future actions without being explicitly programmed to do so. The AI teaches itself. This allows the program to become more sophisticated and develop as time goes on as it experiences more data input. There are many examples of this already in the tech world, including speech recognition software, self-driving cars, the use of data mining to give personalized ads, personal assistants like Cortana (Microsoft) and Siri (Apple) and even Netflix movie recommendations. It’s on the rise too; deep learning, a branch of machine learning, has seen a huge rise in interest in recent years. Deep learning is the ability to look at hundreds of examples of data and make accurate predictions in new situations, much like how a biological neural network functions.
This boom in development of machine learning brings the debate back to ethical framework for development of AI. Should we be scared of AI being capable of teaching itself? It’s possible that over generations, an AI program will be able to improve more efficiently than natural evolution would allow. It would not only be able to improve from generation to generation, it would also be able to specifically design what the next generation of program should look like in addition to speeding up the rate of change. This would be a process not limited by biological factors. This runaway process could eventually end up in a program many times more intelligent than a human, given enough computing power.
It’s for reasons like this that some of greatest minds alive today have warned against machine learning AI. Professor Stephen Hawking has said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX has echoed similar sentiments. He said; “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.” He even said rogue AI is more dangerous than nuclear attack. It’s clearly a pretty big issue that demands action.
The ethics of future AI
With the rapid recent development of machine learning, it seems certain safeguards are essential and need to be put into place. Along with other tech giants, Elon Musk has taken it upon himself to start this process. On December 11th 2015 they pledged $1b and started up a non-profit organisation called OpenAI. Their goal as stated is to: “advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.” They have also pledged to share the data with AI firms, and open-source the data to make sure the whole sector is on the same page.
It seems OpenAI is the first step in creating a universal ethical code for future AI projects. By providing its data for all to use, it will ensure that not one company becomes too powerful or dominates the market. In a blogpost they said: “We believe AI should be an extension of individual human wills and, in the spirit of liberty, as broadly and evenly distributed as possible.” Their aim is to unite AI into a ‘common intelligence’. Up to now, projects from different companies for different tasks have been kept data to themselves but OpenAI want to unite and encourage the sharing of intelligence to create something different. They want to share the huge value in data sets between other companies. The emphasis on OpenAI to be independent of financial return ensures that whoever has to ‘prioritize the outcome’ of AI is not doing so for selfish financial gain.
Future AI and open-source data
The question one may then ask is what incentive is there for companies to share any data at all? Google has recently announced open-sourcing of its machine learning algorithms for its AI library TensorFlow, in the hope that knowledgeable outsiders can access their algorithms and improve them – a ‘I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine’ situation. They’re not alone; Facebook and Microsoft have also announced open-sourcing of their AI hardware and software.
It seems the future of AI is in cooperation and continual open-sourcing of data from the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and OpenAI. It’s in this way that dystopian futures of rogue AI can be avoided. Perhaps instead we’ll be seeing extremely advanced but sarcastic robots in the near future, of the likes of TARS from Interstellar, floating around the International Space Station.
Links to the more information about the ideas discussed can be found below:
Example of machine learning http://www.sciencemag.org/content/350/6266/1332.abstract
OpenAI blog https://openai.com/blog/introducing-openai/
Ethics of Robotic Intelligence regarding Lethal Autonomous weapons http://www.nature.com/news/robotics-ethics-of-artificial-intelligence-1.17611
Benefits of open-sourcing machine learning algorithms http://www.wired.com/2015/11/google-open-sources-its-artificial-intelligence-engine/