Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking all have something in common: All three have gone on the record sharing their concerns and fears about artificial intelligence and robotics.
While these technologies hold a great deal of promise, and will have a real impact on our future, it's important for us to understand the ramifications they could have for all of us, particularly in terms of labor.
My first big concern about AI was recently highlighted in a New York Times piece by John Markoff, who wrote that while AI has great potential for good, it could also be abused by criminals who might use it for their nefarious goals. Here's Markoff:
The growing sophistication of computer criminals can be seen in the evolution of attack tools like the widely used malicious program known as Blackshades, according to Mr. Goodman. The author of the program, a Swedish national, was convicted last year in the United States.
The system, which was sold widely in the computer underground, functioned as a “criminal franchise in a box,” Mr. Goodman said. It allowed users without technical skills to deploy computer ransomware or perform video or audio eavesdropping with a mouse click.
The next generation of these tools will add machine learning capabilities that have been pioneered by artificial intelligence researchers to improve the quality of machine vision, speech understanding, speech synthesis and natural language understanding. Some computer security researchers believe that digital criminals have been experimenting with the use of A.I. technologies for more than half a decade.
To some degree, we saw this scenario play out recently when sites like Amazon, Netflix and others were crippled for hours by "bots" involved in a Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, attack. The motive behind the attack remains unclear, and it will take some time to sort that out. But as Markoff pointed out, the criminal potential for AI is real and needs to be understood now to try and head off these kinds of attacks in the future.
AI and robotics also concern me in terms of their role in replacing people in the labor force, thus eliminating jobs. I'm hearing from more and more people who study the job market and believe this problem is very real. Telegraph Science Editor Sarah Knapton wrote the following last April:
"Robots will have taken over most jobs within 30 years leaving humanity facing its 'biggest challenge ever' to find meaning in life when work is no longer necessary, according to experts.
Professor Moshe Vardi, of Rice University, in the US, claims that many middle-class professionals will be outsources to machines within the next few decades leaving workers with more leisure time than they have ever experienced.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, Prof Moshe said the rise of robots could lead to unemployment rates greater than 50 per cent. "We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task," said Vardi, a professor in computational engineering."
While a life of leisure may be appealing to many, the fact is that work and jobs are important to our overall lifestyle and identity. Even more importantly, they provide our livelihood. Forecasters believe that by 2050 there will be close to 10 billion people on the earth. If Vardi is right, and robots could replace as many as 50% of the workers in the market, we're headed for disaster.
It's easy for my generation, or even those younger than I, to cast off this problem as one for others to solve. But I don't think we can wait to address this potential nightmare scenario. Leaders in Silicon Valley and Washington need to view AI and robotics as an opportunity, but also a threat if mishandled.
AI experts need to heed the warnings of people like Gates, Musk and Hawking, and build safeguards and security into the products they create. Our education system, meanwhile, needs to be retooled to emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning, the sort of skills that will be most useful in a world where technology and automation could wipe out many of the jobs for which our children are currently being prepared.
I see plenty of potential for good in AI and robotics. But I also see the dangers. Silicon Valley, the broader technology world, and our political leaders need to understand this problem and begin working together to deal with it immediately. The generations behind us are counting on it.