Terminator: The name inflicts fear

After writing 32 articles about nuclear science and technology here in the RDR, the fear of nuclear energy and radiation has become unwarranted in my world (and Japan) and hopefully I have enlightened others as well. This brings us to the next fear factor that hasn’t gripped humanity yet but is just starting to be a concern. Unlike the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, AI (software) and robotics (hardware) are completely open source developments.

And yet, “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Stephen Hawking warns. Elon Musk fears that the development of artificial intelligence, or AI, may be the biggest existential threat humanity faces. Bill Gates urges people to beware of it. I agree with Bill Gates’ approach that we have to consider safe usage now (rules) before it is used to create fear.

Dreading that the abominations people create will become their masters, or their executioners, is hardly new. But voiced by a renowned cosmologist, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the founder of Microsoft, set against the vast investment in AI by big firms like Google and Microsoft, such fears have taken on new weight. With supercomputers in every pocket and robots looking down on every battlefield, just dismissing them as science fiction seems like self-deception. The question is how to worry wisely.

The first step is to understand what AI (software) can now do and what it is likely to do in the future. Thanks to the rise in processing power and the growing abundance of digitally available data, AI is enjoying a boom in its capabilities. AI will probably eliminate whole regiments of white-collar workers as they become enhanced. Education and training will help and the wealth produced with the aid of AI will be spent on new pursuits to generate new jobs. But workers will be doomed to dislocations.

AI systems must be open to scrutiny. Because systems designers cannot foresee every set of circumstances, there must also be an off-switch. These constraints can be put in place without compromising progress. The fear of eventually creating an autonomous non-human intelligence is so extraordinary that it risks overshadowing the debate. Yes, there are perils. But they should not obscure the huge benefits from the dawn of AI.

I personally don’t fear AI robotics in the sense of a destructive ‘Terminator’, but I am concerned about the automation aspect of robotics. According to a widely-cited study by economist Carl Benedikt Frey and engineer Michael Osborne, 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at high risk of disappearance due to improving technology. If you think unemployment is high today, it only has one direction to go in the future as the population of the world continues to increase, almost exponentially.

Even as politicians shout about bringing manufacturing jobs back to America, they can’t. China is automating their manufacturing task just as fast as most other countries to stay competitive on the world market. Automation is destroying jobs faster than new technologies are creating them. Where will all the workers go? Some argue that they will free us to do more fulfilling and higher-value jobs in the future, but that requires human smarts. Not everyone has it or wants to work hard enough to get it.

Here is one way to train the next generation. I just sent my grandkids a learning robot that uses an iPhone for its AI. The little toy like robot has face recognition and can learn your language. Of course, kids will be kids and my 4 year old grand son used his God given talents and taught the robot how to fart on command. Hey, he’s 4. What did you expect?

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