Skynet? More like Skynope

The case against killer robots, from a guy actually working on artificial intelligence

Kent Hernandez

Andrew Ng builds artificial intelligence systems for a living. He taught AI at Stanford, built AI at Google, and then moved to the Chinese search engine giant, Baidu, to continue his work at the forefront of applying artificial intelligence to real-world problems.

So when he hears people like Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking—people who are not intimately familiar with today’s technologies—talking about the wild potential for artificial intelligence to, say, wipe out the human race, you can practically hear him facepalming.

“For those of us shipping AI technology, working to build these technologies now,” he told me, wearily, yesterday, “I don’t see any realistic path from the stuff we work on today—which is amazing and creating tons of value—but I don’t see any path for the software we write to turn evil.”

But isn’t there the potential for these technologies to begin to create mischief in society, if not, say, extinction?

“Computers are becoming more intelligent and that’s useful as in self-driving cars or speech recognition systems or search engines. That’s intelligence,” he said. “But sentience and consciousness is not something that most of the people I talk to think we’re on the path to.”

Not all AI practitioners are as sanguine about the possibilities of robots. Demis Hassabis, the founder of the AI startup DeepMind, which was acquired by Google, made the creation of an AI ethics board a requirement of its acquisition. “I think AI could be world changing, it’s an amazing technology,” he told journalist Steven Levy. “All technologies are inherently neutral but they can be used for good or bad so we have to make sure that it’s used responsibly. I and my cofounders have felt this for a long time.”

So, I said, simply project forward progress in AI and the continued advance of Moore’s Law and associated increases in computers speed, memory size, etc. What about in 40 years, does he foresee sentient AI?

“I think to get human-level AI, we need significantly different algorithms and ideas than we have now,” he said. English-to-Chinese machine translation systems, he noted, had “read” pretty much all of the parallel English-Chinese texts in the world, “way more language than any human could possibly read in their lifetime.” And yet they are far worse translators than humans who’ve seen a fraction of that data. “So that says the human’s learning algorithm is very different.”

Notice that he didn’t actually answer the question. But he did say why he personally is not working on mitigating the risks some other people foresee in superintelligent machines.

“I don’t work on preventing AI from turning evil for the same reason that I don’t work on combating overpopulation on the planet Mars,” he said. “Hundreds of years from now when hopefully we’ve colonized Mars, overpopulation might be a serious problem and we’ll have to deal with it. It’ll be a pressing issue. There’s tons of pollution and people are dying and so you might say, ‘How can you not care about all these people dying of pollution on Mars?’ Well, it’s just not productive to work on that right now.”

Current AI systems, Ng contends, are basic relative to human intelligence, even if there are things they can do that exceed the capabilities of any human. “Maybe hundreds of years from now, maybe thousands of years from now—I don’t know—maybe there will be some AI that turn evil,” he said, “but that’s just so far away that I don’t know how to productively work on that.”

The bigger worry, he noted, was the effect that increasingly smart machines might have on the job market, displacing workers in all kinds of fields much faster than even industrialization displaced agricultural workers or automation displaced factory workers.

Surely, creative industry people like myself would be immune from the effects of this kind of artificial intelligence, though, right?

“I feel like there is more mysticism around the notion of creativity than is really necessary,” Ng said. “Speaking as an educator, I’ve seen people learn to be more creative. And I think that some day, and this might be hundreds of years from now, I don’t think that the idea of creativity is something that will always be beyond the realm of computers.”

And the less we understand what a computer is doing, the more creative and intelligent it will seem. “When machines have so much muscle behind them that we no longer understand how they came up with a novel move or conclusion,” he concluded, “we will see more and more what look like sparks of brilliance emanating from machines.”