We live in an age where technological advancements are occurring at a rate that exceed by multitudes that of previous generations, a phenomenon known as accelerating change. While these advancements have brought a number of positive benefits to humanity, there are many who wonder if it is all truly good? And with such quick progress there is little, if any, time to think through the ethical implications of these new technologies. Stephen Hawking, along with three well-known professors, recently wrote an op-ed for the Independent discussing the rise of artificial-intelligence (AI) and the possible harms associated with it. Hawking et al. refer to the new Morgan Freeman and Johnny Depp film Transcendence, about AI machines clashing with humanity (with a heavy-handed dose of Hollywood drama), saying the scenario might not be so unrealistic. The authors discuss the possibility of “technological singularity” or what the film calls “transcendence,” where “machines with superhuman intelligence could repeatedly improve their design even further.” While they note that the possibilities could bring many positive changes, they warn that they could bring just as many negative changes—the point being that humanity needs to seriously think these possibilities through now:
So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, “We’ll arrive in a few decades,” would we just reply, “OK, call us when you get here – we’ll leave the lights on”? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute. All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.