AS if priming us for the Prime Minister’s Washington announcement that the UK will host the first global summit on Artificial Intelligence regulation in the autumn, Rishi Sunak’s ‘task force’ adviser on technology took to the airwaves on Monday to warn that we may have only two years to control AI before computers start threatening the human race.
Matt Clifford told Talk TV that he thinks AI systems may soon become so out of control they could wipe out swathes of humanity. Asked what keeps him awake at night, he answered: ‘The fact that the people who are building the most capable systems freely admit that they don’t understand exactly how they exhibit the behaviours that they do.’
Shadow digital secretary Lucy Powell struck a similar chord at the techUK conference on Tuesday, warning that AI creators need to show what is ‘under the bonnet’ in their software so ‘experts and regulators’ can ‘figure out’ the technology behind it.
Clifford anxiously envisages a future where a new ‘species’ of out-of-control, super-smart aliens could turn against us, saying: ‘It’s certainly true that if we try and create artificial intelligence that is more intelligent than humans and we don’t know how to control it, then that’s going to create a potential for all sorts of risks now and in the future.’
One can only hope that the new AI genus Clifford describes will program itself for critical thinking, since chief advisers and senior politicians seem terminally incapable of it.
Without wishing to be rude to Mr Clifford and Ms Powell, it is simply nonsense to believe we don’t know fully what is ‘under the AI bonnet’ – every last digit of its code is visible to its human creators, and much of it is in the public domain, accessible with a double click on any web page. As is the case so often, ignorance breeds fear, and when ill-informed hysteria is amplified by an equally susceptible news media the smog of illiteracy inevitably grows gloomier.
What is intelligence? What is a thought? What is consciousness? Is it really plausible that a computer can think? There’s little point in pontificating about this and that ‘existential threat’ unless you have examined these concepts. Without definition, words are meaningless and conversations which include them are disconnected from reality. Without a clear definition my washing machine, cooker, satnav, online calendar and pretty much the bulk of today’s technological aids might be described as ‘artificially intelligent’. But do we really want to use the concept so loosely?
I currently have the good fortune to be tutoring an 11-year-old boy in critical thinking. Recently we have been attempting to define ‘intelligence’ and are engaged in an enjoyable tussle over our different perspectives. Lucas’s view is that intelligence is essentially knowledge, and the more knowledge you have the more intelligent you are, an idea not too distant from many schools’ philosophy of education. Mine is that intelligence is a capability, to which Lucas consistently replies: ‘Ah, but you need the knowledge in order to be capable.’