“The rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which.”
In the last two hundred years we have seen the human race shift from horses as transportation to self-driving vehicles and from pen and paper, as well as the typewriter to powerful handheld computers that fit inside our pockets. Two-hundred years, in historical terms, is a relatively short period, yet we have seen huge technological progress and innovation which has revolutionised our work lives, communication, social lives, romantic relationships, travel habits and much more.
Not only have we seen dramatic changes and innovation in the amount and quality of technology in society but the length of time that occurs between these technological advances and their common usage in society is becoming smaller and smaller. For example, from the development of the first functional steam engine by Newcomen in 1707, there was a gap of over 200 years until the first affordable and reliable automobile in 1908. Whereas it took a total of 20 years between the development of the ENIAC, the world’s first computer, and the production and sale of IBM’s 360 system. Currently, we have seen fast-paced technological progress occurring after the development of smartphones in 2002, since then we have witnessed significant and consistent progress with the release of a new model every 1-2 years which possesses notable improvements in their function and capability. Now smartphones have artificial intelligence (AI) features such as speech comprehension, the provision of tailored advice in a spoken language (many of us will be familiar with Siri), finishing words when writing text and several other capabilities that require embedded AI.
For some (especially us millennials and the generations before), the progress from mobile phones like the Nokia 3310 that resembled bricks, were indestructible and had banging games like Snake, to powerful smartphones which have a range of different apps suitable for all purposes have been an impressive transformation and it looks like there is much more to come.
The days of scheduled MSN meetings and Bluetooth-ing tunes like the parody of London Underground are well and truly over.
But, what exactly is AI, what can it offer and where is it likely to take us?
Put simply, AI can be defined as a machine’s ability to perform cognitive functions that we typically associate with human minds. This includes perceiving, learning, reasoning, the ability to interact with an environment, problem-solving and creativity.
The current AI systems may well demonstrate some features of human intelligence, including perception, problem-solving, learning and to some degree social intelligence and creativity. AI is now a common feature of everyday life and readily available to consumers, some typical examples include smart speakers such as Alexa or Google voice assistant and popular AI chatbots such as ChatGPT, Bing Chat and Google Bard.
Those within the technology industry who are optimistic about the prospects of AI suggest that due to the rapid developments that have been made over the last 30 years in AI, from computers manipulating 0 and 1 digits, to the utilisation of advanced neural network algorithms, this means that they are confident within the next 15 years that the accelerating rate of AI innovation and progress will lead to a breakthrough. This development is likely to be related to deep learning that replicates the method by which young children learn, rather than through the gruelling instructions from customised programs designed for particular applications.
When we know what AI is, and how it has already drastically changed our everyday lives, it becomes clear that the potential of AI is ginormous. AI is extremely powerful and the number of possible applications for AI is vast and widespread, spanning different areas such as healthcare, automation, cyber-security, transport, education and finance. Throughout human history and up until very recently it has been the case that famines, wars and pandemics were common and devastating to large chunks of the population. The industrial and digital revolutions changed this for some parts of the globe.
Meanwhile, the tech revolution and AI can substitute for, supplement and/or amplify pretty much all tasks performed by humans.
The question is… what will the role of humans be when computers and robots can perform almost all tasks at similar or even higher levels and much cheaper than humans can?
There are four AI scenarios that have been proposed.
The first perspective is that of the optimists. This group predicts that AI innovation will bring with it a science fiction-like utopian future as a result of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics radically transforming all aspects of society. Lastly, in this scenario, robots would be responsible for all labour leaving humans to do work of their choosing or leisure.
The pessimists, on the other hand, hold a far more negative outlook. This view suggests that as machines become increasingly intelligent and social issues also become more complicated it will become more common for humans to allow machines to make important decisions, as this will result in greater results than the decisions made by humans. This will ultimately result in machines having control over all important decisions with humans completely reliant on them to do so, leading people to become fearful of making their own choices.
The third group, the pragmatists, believe that AI technologies can be managed using effective regulation. Their view is that humans could learn to make use of the power that computers possess to augment our own skills to always stay in front of AI, or at least not fall behind.
The fourth and final group is the doubters. This group does not believe that AI is possible, and this means that it will never be a threat to humanity. This position believes that AI is a fad promoted by the computer industry. The doubters believe that AI will never be able to achieve the highest dimension of human ability in creativity as doing so requires branching outside of formal rules and being anti-algorithmic. This means that any tasks which require creative thinking, including innovative breakthroughs, would still be performed at a superior level by humans.
Outside of these scenarios are some general concerns that have been raised about the potential societal impact that AI may have on nations. These include the risk of rising inequality.
In this situation, even if workers left unemployed through automation find new jobs, the outcome may still be rising inequality. In a labour-limited economy, capital increases in value and the wealthier become wealthier. As the inequality deepens this may lead to political and social instability. Generational dislocation may also take place. This is where, just as in the migration from the field to the factory, AI could instigate a change in the labour market that takes a generation to fix. Individuals who have lost their jobs may not possess the necessary skills needed for the new jobs created by AI resulting in a mismatch between the two.
Despite fears of an apocalyptic Matrix or Terminator-style future being slightly far-fetched there does need to be large-scale economic and social changes which protect individuals from potential issues posed by AI such as mass unemployment. At the very least there will be an adjustment period for many as we need to upskill and learn the new skills which will be of value in the future tech-heavy labour market. In the meantime, it is crucial to protect the health and well-being of populations which under current circumstances would be gravely endangered.
One potential social policy solution to act as a safeguard and protection to some of these issues is to put in place universal basic income (UBI). This is a fairly straightforward idea and consists of the government providing a basic standard of income for everyone, that is sufficient to live on. It has been argued that UBI would become a necessity if the labour market changes that take place as a result of AI do not produce new industries or employment opportunities for human workers. One potential solution to this outcome is to offer individuals displaced by automation the potential for a guaranteed income as they may be unlikely to be able to find work.
Also, the level of regulation of AI is an area of debate for politicians. The UK Government has adopted a “light touch” approach as set out in their white paper which was published on 29th March 2023 titled “A Pro-innovation Approach to AI Regulation” as a part of their Science and Technology Framework.
In doing so, they are hoping to provide a level of freedom to allow for innovation to take place within the sector as part of their vision to make the UK a science and technology superpower by 2030.
Leading industry figures have, however, signed an open letter which calls for a suspension in the development of AI systems until ethical implications are fully considered. It was constructed by the Future of Life Institute Think Tank and endorsed by the likes of Elon Musk and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
The UK Government’s approach outlined in their white paper has taken a very different perspective from legislation produced in this area by the EU where more stringent legislation is being used aimed at managing and controlling the use of AI systems in vulnerable or at-risk areas such as healthcare and law.
This approach has been criticised for not creating and assigning an overarching regulator to the sector and instead using pre-existing regulators such as Ofcom or the Competition and Markets Authority. These regulators may not possess the necessary expertise to adequately regulate the AI sector and the approach fails to create a joining up of regulation between the different sectors where AI will be used.
The AI revolution is offering even higher levels of productivity and wealth and if done correctly, in line with the necessary political, economic and social changes which are necessary, AI and the tech revolution have the potential to radically change the world for the better and revolutionise the human experience.
It is for this reason that politicians need to be clued up on the potential risks and benefits of AI in order to best harness its potential. It is necessary to be conscious of all outcomes and approach the situation with a sense of curiosity and optimism...
...but also caution.