Artificial Intelligence: The Debate

5 October 2018

Earlier this year, I found myself in a lift without any buttons. This is probably one of the simplest examples of artificial intelligence in existence at the moment, but I was mind-blown. I can’t help but wonder how I’ll react when I see a robot walking down the street in the year 2050.

Recent advances in technology – specifically, artificial intelligence – have seen drastic changes in the way in which companies maintain their competitive edge. The machines haven’t taken over yet, but they are definitely creeping their way into our lives and affecting the way we live, work, entertain ourselves and get from one floor to another…

From voice-powered personal assistants like Siri and Alexa to more sophisticated technologies such as self-driving cars, we are already getting excited about AI and how we can substitute people for it. We no longer ask each other questions, or even search for the answers online… I mean, why would we? That’s what Alexa is for, right?

One of the most exciting developments in artificial intelligence technology presents us with Amazon Go, the first cashier-less supermarket. The first Amazon Go store opened in Seattle in August this year – a move that could revolutionise high-street shopping. The supermarket is powered entirely by artificial intelligence systems that monitor the products that shoppers take off the shelves. Customers are then charged for the items through a smartphone app which is scanned when they enter and exit the store. Although cashier-less stores will certainly make life easier, it’s hard to ignore the fact that millions of jobs will be lost in the process of ‘revolutionising’ the high-street.

An even greater development in the AI sphere is Sophia. Sophia was born to loving father, Dr David Hanson in April 2016 and she is a robot. Although she is not the first, Sophia is certainly the most advanced robot of her time and is constantly learning and adapting to her environment… like a human. Sophia is incredibly life-like. She makes eye contact, recognises faces, understands speech and can hold natural conversation, mimicking genuine creativity, empathy and compassion. There is no doubt that Sophia is a scientific miracle but we’ve all seen that film where an army of killer robots try to take over the world, haven’t we? I’m just hoping Will Smith is still up for saving us.

At the moment, AI is pretty harmless – it simply responds with results that are derived by its learning. Whether AI is good or bad will depend on how we train the AI and how we test it. There have however, been examples of AI that have raised concern. In 2017 Twitter taught Microsoft’s AI chatbot racist and sexist traits within 24 hours. The experiment raised a lot of questions concerning how we are going to teach AI using public data without exposing it to the worst traits of humanity. Humans are implicitly challenging, and our behaviour is extremely varied. One of the biggest challenges we face with AI is how we choose what behaviour is acceptable from an ethical perspective. Unfortunately, greed and power are inherent characteristics in many humans so how do we shield AI from this, and how do we stop AI falling into the wrong hands? There is no doubt that AI can create amazing technology such as cashier-less shops, driver-less cars, button-less lifts and voice-powered personal assistants. However, AI can also create autonomous weapons – a fiercely debated topic right now.

Technology is incredible, and it has enabled us to do and see incredible things. Artificial intelligence promises excitement and greatness, but beyond its efficiency and its ability to blow my mind in a lift, it is scary. It is unsociable, and it can be malicious when used for the wrong reasons. I am a strong advocate of embracing technology. However, we need to make sure that it isn’t used for the wrong reasons, at the expense of our people, our society and our planet.