By Anja Kaspersen
World Policy Journal
The machines rise, subjugating humanity. It’s a science fiction trope that’s almost as old as machines themselves. The doomsday scenarios spun around this theme are so outlandish—like The Matrix, in which human-created artificial intelligence plugs humans into a simulated reality to harvest energy from their bodies—it’s difficult to visualize them as serious threats.
Meanwhile, artificially intelligent systems continue to develop apace. Self-driving cars are beginning to share our roads; pocket-sized devices respond to our queries and manage our schedules in real-time; algorithms beat us at Go; robots become better at getting up when they fall over. It’s obvious how developing these technologies will benefit humanity. But, then, don’t all the dystopian sci-fi stories start out this way?
Any discussion about the dystopian potential of AI risks gravitating toward one of two extremes. One is overly credulous scare-mongering. Of course, Siri isn’t about to transmogrify into murderous HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the other extreme is equally dangerous—complacency that we don’t need to think about these issues, because humanity-threatening AI is decades or more away.
It is true that the artificial “superintelligence” beloved of sci-fi may be many decades in the future, if it is possible at all. However, a recent survey of leading AI researchers by TechEmergence found a wide variety of concerns about the security dangers of AI in a much more realistic, 20-year timeframe—including financial system meltdown as algorithms interact unexpectedly, and the potential for AI to help malicious actors optimize biotechnological weapons.
These examples show how, alongside technological progress on many fronts, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is promising a rapid and massive democratization of the capacity to wreak havoc on a very large scale. On the dark side of the “deep web,” where information is hidden from search engines, destructive tools across a range of emerging technologies already exist for sale, from 3-D-printed weapons to fissile material and equipment for genetic engineering in home laboratories. In each case, AI exacerbates the potential for harm.
Picture: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons