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The Great AI Reckoning

It's time we talk about the artificial elephant in the room

By Iris ErdilePublished 4 months ago 4 min read
The Great AI Reckoning
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

In the coming years, artificial intelligence is probably going to change your life, my life, and likely, the entire world. The only point of disagreement from consensus is how.

The following are excerpts from a World Economic Forum interview in which renowned computer science professor and AI expert Stuart Russell separates facts from fiction.

According to Russell, “There’s a big difference between asking a human to do something and giving that as the objective to an AI system. When you ask a human to get you a cup of coffee, you don’t mean this should be their life’s mission, and nothing else in the universe matters. Even if they have to kill everybody else in Starbucks to get you the coffee before it closes— they should do that. No, that’s not what you mean. All the other things that we mutually care about, they should factor into your behavior as well. And the problem with the way we build AI systems now is we give them a fixed objective.The algorithms require us to specify everything in the objective.”

Russell conitnues, “[...And the reason that we don’t have to do that with humans is that humans often know that they don’t know all the things that we care about. If you ask a human to get you a cup of coffee, and you happen to be in the Hotel George Sand in Paris, where the coffee is 13 euros a cup, it’s entirely reasonable to come back and say, well, it’s 13 euros, are you sure you want it, or I could go next door and get one? And it’s a perfectly normal thing for a person to do. To ask, I’m going to repaint your house—is it okay if I take off the drainpipes and then put them back? We don't think of this as a terribly sophisticated capability,but AI systems don’t have it because the way we build them now,they have to know the full objective."

Russell continues, "If we build systems that know that they don’t know what the objective is, then they start to exhibit these behaviors, like asking permission before getting rid of all the oxygen in the atmosphere. In all these senses, control over the AI system, comes from the machine’s uncertainty about what the true objective is. And it’s when you build machines that believe with certainty that they have the objective, that’s when you get this sort of psychopathic behavior.

When asked about the potential outcome on AI on our future economy, and whether human beings have the potential to adapt to such conditions, Russell continues astutely, “This is a very old point. Amazingly, Aristotle actually has a passage where he says, look, if we had fully automated weaving machines and plectrums that could pluck the lyre and produce music without any humans, then we wouldn’t need any workers. That idea, which I think it was Keynes who called it technological unemployment in 1930, is very obvious to people. They think, yeah, of course, if the machine does the work, then I'm going to be unemployed. You can think about the warehouses that companies are currently operating for e-commerce, they are half automated. The way it works is that an old warehouse— where you’ve got tons of stuff piled up all over the place and humans go and rummage around and then bring it back and send it off—there’s a robot who goes and gets the shelving unit that contains the thing that you need, but the human has to pick the object out of the bin or off the shelf, because that’s still too difficult."

Throughout the rest of the interview, Russell hits on additional and varied points. Consistently, the theme of critical thinking and learned helplessness in human beings as a result of AI is an important concern when it comes to the future workforce and citizenry. One potential concern addressed in the interview is that should everyone come to depend on AI to manage civilization, they may lose their incentive to care and be implicated in their society.

In addition, he begs the question, will our critical thinking suffer? He expresses concerns about an apparent lack of necessity to teach and impart information if all of the information is on AI. At the same time, as an individual with expertise in education, I can attest that there are many challenges in today’s classroom, particularly since 2020, and any tool that makes teaching and learning more accessible will be a tremendous help to all.

While Russell worries about the potential future where AI slowly begins to take over the functions of society, he also cautions that it will be a gradual transition rather than a forceful coup. With every improvement in AI, the technology begins to expand upon the tasks it performs. The general consensus, he tells us, is that by this process will be complete by 2045. He cites John McCaffee, one of the originators of AI, who postulated it would happen “between 5 and 500 years.” According to Russell, it will take, as he puts it, “several Einsteins” to be able to gain control over the situation.

This author, on the other hand, remains hopeful that homo sapiens sapiens will be find a way to harness the hyperfocused powers of AI to help with looming existential catastrophes such as climate collapse. We certainly need all of the help we can get as a species, and for the time being, the AI still learns from what we can teach it. As we meet this era, I remind readers that the direction AI will take us is bound by the things that we ask it to pay attention to. May we use this power for good, and not evil.

humanityfutureartificial intelligence

About the Creator

Iris Erdile

Educator, activist, writer, artist, healer, mystic

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Comments (1)

  • Novel Allen4 months ago

    Is it already too late for human beings Iris. Our ability to think stems from how much we allow AI to control our lives. I try to remember to pay my credit cards on time, I try to keep my own passwords so I don't have them saved on-line. Sometimes i forget, but it is the human aspect of me. My brain needs to be active and alert. What are we doing to ourselves.

Iris ErdileWritten by Iris Erdile

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