Are we ready for the power of Artificial Intelligence?
With each leap in human ability to invent and change what we can achieve, we have utilised a new ‘power’ – a new energy that has redefined the boundaries of imagination. Steam and the industrial revolution; electricity and the age of light; and so, again, we stand on the precipice of another seismic leap: Artificial Intelligence (AI). The future of AI is not just about what we can do with it, but who will have access to control its power. Could AI become ubiquitous, like electricity? A technological power capable to drive economic and social change for the next generation? In this case, should our political representatives already be encouraging an open, public debate on democratic oversight of AI?
Our present view of AI is heavily coloured by how this new power will deliver automation and the potential reduction of process-reliant jobs; how those who hold the pen on writing the algorithms behind AI could exert vast power and influence on the masses; or simply a fear that, if we release the AI genie out of the bottle, we may not be able to control it. The challenge is that the sheer limitless potential of AI is intimidating. And if, like me, you are from a certain generation, these seeds of fear and the fascination with artificial computer-based intelligence have been planted by numerous Hollywood movies of every genre picking on our hopes, dreams and fears as to what AI could do to us. Think of the unnerving subservience of HAL in 2001 (1968), the menacing and semi-obedient
Maximilian from The Black Hole (1979), a fantasy woman created by the power of 80s home computing – such as ‘Lisa’ in Weird Science (1985) - and of course the ultimate hellish future of machine intelligence taking over the world in the form of Skynet in The Terminator (1984). These and many other futuristic interpretations of AI helped to fan the flames in the minds of engineers, computer scientists and super geeks alike to get computers to talk, walk, run simulators or (and it was a great achievement!) even beat the reigning world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, as Deep Blue achieved in 1997.
So why is AI now such a big deal? Well, obviously, the processing power and the development of supercomputing has continued, but has now converged with our ability to both create and harness vast amounts of data. This has been underpinned by the ability to connect everything to everything via the internet and voilà – we have the emergence of the right meta-ecosystem for data scientists to be able to not just develop systems that can replicate human activity but also learn, adapt, predict and decide. And this capability can be applied to the whole spectrum of machines and services – injecting them with the ability to ‘think’ for us. We have poured rules (algorithms) into machines and made them ‘thinking machines’ - and we’ve stopped prioritising on trying to get robots to look and feel like us, and focused instead on enabling them to do more activities for us. In the process, some machines have superseded humans in doing things faster and better and, therefore, are perceived to be more intelligent than us.
Looking to the future
As we peer into the near future, we see a move from ‘pioneering’ to the ‘application’ era of AI. We can anticipate that our clothes, our bodies, our food, our lives will integrate with this technology as will our environment, and we will move from smart cities to thinking cities - with multiple integrated systems, sharing and informing each other and enabling active management of our activities in real-time.
So, with all this new power, with so many opportunities and benefits to be derived by its application, what should we fear? Well, my answer is not one from Hollywood science fiction and does not relate to individuals losing control to machines but rather how will we ensure that this power remains democratic, accessible and benefits the many. How will we ensure that control does not fall in the hands of the few; that wealth does not determine the ability to benefit from innovation and that a small set of organisations do not gain ultimate global control or influence on our lives.
We are at a critical time, when the future power of AI is still being understood but we already know that it will shape advancements in every field, from science and medicine to space exploration and energy, resulting in a remodelling of society. Which is why our politicians must appreciate the size of this opportunity, think about the long-term future, and start to establish the policy frameworks and new public bodies which will work in tandem with those who will design and deliver our future world.
Digital Vision for AI
This article is part of the Atos Digital Vision for AI opinion paper. We explore the realities of AI and what’s ahead for organisations and society, as artificial intelligence advances fast as an enterprise solution.