Artificial Intelligence: the electricity of the 21st century or a thriller for humanity?

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Artificial Intelligence: the electricity of the 21st century or a thriller for humanity?

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When filmmaker and director Tonje Hessen Schei chose AI as the topic for her documentary iHuman it was, she says, because she wanted to issue a wake-up call. “We are facing new technology that I think demands that all of us are awake and aware of what is going on in our lives and in our society and what’s coming in the future,” she says.

Schei believes that while AI is becoming an increasingly common part of everyday life, many people are unaware of the implications. She joins Casper Klynge, Microsoft Vice-President of European Government Affairs, along with Microsoft Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz, in the latest #TechFit4Europe podcast to discuss her ideas about the nexus of people and AI.

Recorded as part of the third annual Data Science & Law Forum in April 2021, in a session titled The Next Frontiers For Humanity: Expectations, Disruptions & Surprises In AI, the trio talk about what should be done to ensure everyone can benefit from this technology.

Here are five key takeaways from their conversation.

1. Blockbuster films may favor dramatic doom-laden plots, but there are plenty of reasons to be positive about AI

From Terminator to The Matrix, doomsday scenarios are the stock-in-trade of many of the most popular movies of all time. But when she made her documentary, iHuman, the Norwegian film director, producer and screenwriter Tonje Hessen Schei wanted to be more nuanced.

“Things rarely are black or white,” she says. “I am optimistic because there are a lot of beautiful people that are working in these big technology corporations … leading the AI revolution.”

That sense of optimism is shared by Eric Horvitz, who says: “I’m a tremendously optimistic person in general. This extends to AI and what it can deliver to humankind.”

Horvitz went on to add that democratic societies have a reassuring track record of adopting and adapting to new technologies, which bodes well for the future. But he also stressed that the work of Schei and other people in the creative field has an important role to play. Unlike historical examples of epoch-defining technology, society now has a chance to really think about what it wants next from AI.

“We didn’t have this kind of reflection – movies being made by people like Tonje – with the early days of fire or electricity,” Horvitz says.

2. Runaway AI is unlikely

Fears about the rise of an uncontrollable super intelligence have been expressed by many people, including the renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. This theme is also explored in iHuman.

However, Horvitz feels it is unlikely to come to fruition. “Even though it’s early days, the things we’re doing today already – and our interest in following the technology as the competency rises and the applications promulgate – will inform us as we go,” he says. “There’s not going to be like a pop where all of a sudden there’s a surprising rise of super intelligence. We’re going to be … learning as we go, and I think we’ll be careful and wise.”

Schei believes we are at a crossroads – we have to make sure we take the right decisions now that will help us shape an AI future that we all want and we can retain control of. To that end, Schei feels the recently published proposals on AI regulation from the EU are another sign for optimism. “I think that we’re seeing some really important trends in how, for example, the European Union is taking a pioneering role in getting some regulations – or starting to work on regulations – that are very, very much needed.”

3. AI holds great promise for healthcare, research and education

One of the areas of everyday life that could be profoundly transformed by AI – for the better – is healthcare. In fact, both speakers are optimistic about the potential for AI to reshape medicine and healthcare. Horvitz talks about an AI safety net that could alert doctors to any potential human errors in treatment, such as incorrect medication or dosing. Similarly, it could perform a more accurate and nuanced analysis of a patient’s vital signs and trigger an early warning if medical intervention might be needed.

Schei concurs: “I think that there are a lot of really great, positive developments within AI and how we are using AI, especially in the health sector.”

There has also been an invaluable role for AI in the fight against COVID-19, Horvitz points out: “We’re seeing the pandemic really unleash such creativity in avoiding the next pandemic and incredible work going on in protein design, vaccine development, leveraging deep neural networks.”

4. Stakeholders must work together to avoid pitfalls

Horvitz and Schei share many of the same concerns about why we should remain vigilant.

“Data is the fuel of AI systems and we all are emitting so much data into the digital environment we work in and we live in, it makes it easy to start triangulating and fusing data about individuals and then working to manipulate and change people’s beliefs, for example, in a personalized way,” Horvitz says.

For Schei, the military use of AI is another reason to be concerned. “I got the idea for iHuman when I was working on Drone, my last film that looks at [the] CIA’s secret drone warfare,” she explains. “One of the things that really terrified me there was to see how the autonomous weapons were coming up in the pipeline.”

Horvitz expands that observation: “At the high level, we have a number of directions that are raising concerns – whether it be weapons, privacy, civil liberties, labor and the economy and the future of jobs.”

The best response to such concerns is, he says, for “multiple stakeholders to come together to make decisions so we can direct the technology, guide it, versus just sitting around and letting things happen.”

5. The difficult conversations need to happen now

Companies need to consider the ethical implications of their technology while politicians and lawmakers need to understand the technology they are trying to regulate. These issues were discussed at the third annual Data Science & Law Forum, organized by Microsoft in April 2021, where NGOs, regulators and technologists shared their views on this important matter.

Horvitz points to some of the work being undertaken by Microsoft in this regard: “We’re trying to work with other companies, work with other civil society organizations to think through possibilities, what we can do as a larger community. So, we’re very much engaged – along with other large companies and small companies and groups like the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and others in the Partnership on AI, a nonprofit where we get together and we can talk through issues and identify best practices, gaps, directions, where we need to go.”

The development of AI is still in its early stages. Facing up to challenges and having difficult conversations now could help prevent some of the concerns voiced from coming to life. But this will require hard work and commitment, as Schei points out: “It is incredibly complicated. But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean that we should just give up.”

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