When President Barack Obama agreed to guest-edit the November issue of WIRED, he selected MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito for an exchange of ideas about technology today and in the future, in particular artificial intelligence (AI). Their recent interview at the White House, moderated by Wired Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich is featured in the latest online issue of WIRED, published on October 12 last. The president, whose term is nearing its end (his successor will be sworn in next January), has chosen a special platform to make him heard. The theme of the November issue is “Frontiers,” reflecting how technology is influencing many segments of life.
Political circles often refer to the final months of a term as “harvest time”: the time when a politician reveals what he or she has achieved – or claims to have achieved.
Contrary to others Obama does not just provide an overview of his achievements but rather looks ahead and shares his views with us about technological progress and all the ethical and societal consequences involved.
The conversation covered a wide range of topics at the intersection of societal needs, ethics, and technology — from cyber security to self-driving cars; from the roles of government, industry, and academia to the lack of diversity in technology; from “moon-shot” motivations to innovation at the margins; and from neurodiversity to Star Trek. All this was covered in the context of AI and extended intelligence (EI), which uses machine learning to augment human capabilities.
To no surprise the president took the opportunity to highlight some of his achievements during his term of office: democracy and improved educational opportunities have spread to more countries, as has marriage equality. The president Obama pointed to the landmark multilateral climate change agreement reached in Paris as evidence that the world is coming together to solve a global problem.
All that progress, Obama said, has occurred not just because politicians and the general public pushed forward but also because “we scienced the heck out of our challenges.” He said that scientific advances have helped combat problems as diverse as acid rain and AIDS, while technological progress has shrunk the world by making global communication easier.
Special attention was given to AI: It is hard to think of a single technology that will shape our world more in the next 50 years than artificial intelligence. As machine learning enables our computers to teach themselves, a wealth of breakthroughs emerge, ranging from medical diagnostics to cars that drive themselves. A whole lot of worry emerges as well. Who controls this technology? Will it take over our jobs? Is it dangerous?
From reading articles and hearing experts discuss about AI, it is certain that a lot of benefits but also risks are involved, which are also addressed by President Obama. From SIRI, our iPhone personal assistant to self-driving cars, artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing rapidly. While science fiction often portrays AI as robots with human-like characteristics, AI can encompass anything from Google’s search algorithms to IBM’s Watson to autonomous weapons. To quote Max Tegmark, president of the Future of Life Institute: “Everything we love about civilisation is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping civilisation flourish like never before – as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.“
Artificial intelligence today is properly known as narrow AI (or weak AI), in that it is designed to perform a narrow task (e.g. only facial recognition or only internet searches or only driving a car). However, the long-term goal of many researchers is to create general AI (AGI or strong AI). While narrow AI may outperform humans at whatever its specific task is, like playing chess or solving equations, AGI would outperform humans at nearly every cognitive task. I share Tagmark’s views that our civilisation will flourish as long as we win the race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we manage it. In the case of AI technology, the best way to win that race is not to impede the former, but to accelerate the latter, by supporting AI safety research. Technology and technological progress is there to benefit humanity.
In IORMA’s Innovation Hub you will find the videos covering the various topics of the Wired interview. Our HUB also provides a wide range of articles, presentations and videos in particular to what is happening globally with respect to technology innovation and highlights selected start ups that are using these technologies today to disrupt markets and change consumer behaviour. Click here to go to the homepage of our Innovation HUB.