Should we take AI seriously?

Artificial intelligence seems like a long way off but should we considering its potential impacts now?
24 March 2016

Interview with 

Professor Huw Price, University of Cambridge


Artifcial intelligence is already here and it's only going to get smarter and more ubiquitous. They'll take our jobs but could also enhance our lives beyond belief. Given that, should we be taking this revolution more seriously now? Huw Price thinks to and he explained why to Graihagh Jackson...

Huw - There's a good case for thinking that probably over the course of this century, we're going to be facing one of the biggest transitions that our species has ever gone through.  Whatever it's going to mean, it's a challenge, and whatever its downsides and upsides, they're things that we face together and I think it's very important to recognise that fact. 

Graihagh - And to recognise those facts, we have to know the risks. Like how even if we do lose our jobs to robots, how we then perceive ourselves...Will we have a crisis of identity?

Huw -   There's a sense in which each of us has many different identities as members of different sorts of communities.  Work communities and family communities and it may be that we need to shift things a little bit away from the kind of work-focus into finding what we are, and make some of the other kind of focuses more important.

Graihagh - It's an interesting point you make, because I definitely define myself, in parts certainly, by what I do - I make radio.  I mean, what are we without our jobs?  I'm not sure how I would define myself.  Hi I'm Graihagh - I'm a radio producer.  I mean I don't know what else I'd say.

Huw - Well, perhaps you say that when you're meeting people to interview them but it may be that in another context you introduce yourself in other ways. I mean, certainly if I'm in a taxi and the taxi driver starts chatting, I'm very careful not to say I'm a philosopher and partly that's because taxi drivers tend to have their own philosophies and be very keen to tell you about them.

Graihagh - So how do you introduce yourself then?

Huw - Well sometimes I say, well I'm a physicist.

Graihagh - What, because you won't get any questions?

Huw - Exactly.  Taxi drivers don't have their own physics...

Graihagh - Okay -  learned lesson but still you're saying a physicists.  That's still is work-related.

Huw - That's true and, as I was saying, I do think that to some extent, we've got to move away from that.  I think some people will end up having a more what you might call, multidimensional kind of work life but also they'll have more time for other things.

Graihagh - Yes, and it's interesting you say that because something that came up with my interview with Mike was that actually, algorithms and machine learning may free us up to do things that are much more enjoyable in life.  You know there may be the cons that we lose jobs on the way but it might mean we have a much more satisfying job.

Huw - Yes, exactly. I think there is a wonderful opportunity here, but it's the kinds of changes that are needed to make the best of it are probably quite far-reaching.

Graihagh - We've talked a little bit there about what the benefits could be in terms of better jobs and stuff but I'm wondering how you might have a more satisfying job but actually, how machine learning might seriously enhance what we do.  I'm thinking medical images when you're looking for metastases of cancer or whatever, a machine that could endlessly and tirelessly look at those images and work out which were needed for further screening or not.  I could imagine something like that having real benefits to not only that individual doctor, but also society as a whole.

Huw - Yes, and I think there'd be many cases like that where machines will soon be better at doing those sorts of tasks than we are.  Fortunately, there's also a growing sense that the community of people involved are increasingly aware of, as it were, how much of our future they hold in their hands and there's a very encouraging sense of a growing community coming together within the tech community as well as from the outside - from academics - to get together to meet the kinds of challenges of the area and trying to ensure that we maximise the potential benefits.

Graihagh - So when you look to the future of A.I., what do you envisage our future to look like?

Huw - It's very hard to do this long term prediction but I think I am an optimist.  I think there are, of course, risks we need to consider but there's a huge potential for it turning out to be something rather wonderful.  The example I'm going to give you is a little bit contradictory but imagine that before the development of sophisticated language, ancestors were trying to think about the question as to what they might be able to do if they had language.  It's obvious that they wouldn't be able to get very far and yet what was ahead of them, in many ways, was something quite remarkable, and I'm optimistic that that's the case with A.I. too.  We don't know exactly where it's going but we do know that some of the possible destinations are really wonderful ones.  We want to work together to make sure we get to the good ones and not to the bad ones.

Graihagh - Huw's right - Artificial Intelligence could be revolutionary but we're future gazing here - it's all a guestimate -  and thus it's hard to know what our future really holds.

So after ruminating and chewing overall the possibilities what can we take away from this?

That AI is already here...

Christian Sandvig - In fact, it already encpasses things a lot of things that we'd encounter every day.

Graihagh - ...and you know what, it's only going to get smarter. Yes, it may take some of our jobs...

Machine - What kind of food would you like?

Graihagh - ...but actually, like all technological revolutions, it will give a lot back too.

Michael Osborne - The kinds of jobs that remain after automation are going to be increasingly satisfying and enjoyable.

Graihagh - Advances in technology have also saved us time, money and given us home comforts (I cannot for one minute imagine life without a washing!) I'm sure artificial intelligence will do the same in ways we can't even imagine.

Huw Price - I think I am an optimist, I think of course there are risks that we need to consider, but there's a huge potential for it turning out to be something rather wonderful.

Graihagh - As we hand over more jobs to machines, it will have some very real human consequences - new questions, not just about our identity, and expose flaws and challenge us. But that's exciting!

For now, we've only just scratched the surface when it comes machine learning, smart algorithms and robotics... What I'm trying to say is that I'm not going to worry about computers taking over the world any time soon and you shouldn't either, but it might be worth checking if they'll take your job first!


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