Are We Really Headed Toward AI Armageddon?

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This week dozens of leaders in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), including Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, penned an open letter urging the United Nations to ban the use of AI in weapons.

“As companies building the technologies in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics that may be repurposed to develop autonomous weapons, we feel especially responsible in raising this alarm,” reads the letter.

Drone technology, which is relatively cheap and comes without the potential cost of military lives, is already popular with governments–most notably the US. A 2015 letter, signed by Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Stephen Hawking, among thousands of others, warned that increased AI use on the battlefield could lower the bar for going to war, and, in the wrong hands, help perpetrate ethnic cleansing.

“Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare,” it continues. “Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act.

“Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.”

GoodAI CEO and CTO Marek Rosa says that Musk and co’s open letter “brought a lot of attention to this topic. Officials were open to discuss this topic even before–there have already been discussions with UN–now it should be better.

“It’s also interesting how various people react to this ban,” he adds. “Some are for it, some will say there’s no way anyone would abide by it and every country will try to develop autonomous AI weapons anyway. So again, the attention is very important because it means officials will discuss it more seriously, it won’t be put on hold for long.”

We may not have Terminator-style bots roaming the streets just yet. But as far as the wider technology goes, the lid to Musk and co’s Pandora’s Box has already been flung wide open. AI is in our smartphones, cars, factories and just about everywhere else. Robots have been created to look after our elderly relatives, deliver goods and even man hotel reception desks. This week a computer even produced the world’s first AI music album.

Neither are warnings over an ‘AI armageddon’ new. Scientists have feared the onset of robotics and AI since the early 20th century. In 1998 Swiss scientists at Davos raised an alarm about the AI-led destruction of mankind.

“There will be major warfare between these two major groups, one saying building machines is the destiny of the human species, something people should do and the other group saying it’s too dangerous,” AI researcher Hugo de Garis told CNN.

Scientists are split on the future of AI. Musk and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg clashed earlier this year, with Zuckerberg calling Musk’s comments “negative” and “irresponsible.” Mike Hinchley, president of the International Federation for Information Processing, has also dismissed Musk’s warnings, saying of robots: “Let them take the mundane and boring jobs, and let them create new jobs in new fields. We will create more jobs in other fields, and the jobs we don’t want to do will go away.”

Futurist Ray Kurzweil told an audience at the CeBIT conference this year: “Look at all these categories of work; computers’ll be able to do that. We’ve already eliminated all human employment several times over. How many jobs circa 1900 still exist today? But for every job that we’ve eliminated at the bottom of the skill ladder, we’ve created several new ones at the top of the skill ladder.”

Musk has stressed the need for humans to “be symbiotic and merge with AI.” His new venture Neuralink will develop a chip to be implanted into the brains of people suffering neurological illnesses, such as strokes, and connect them to the cloud. Physicist Stephen Hawking has already lauded the potential for AI to help humans erase the environmental damage caused by the Industrial Revolution. And projects like Neuralink might help people overcome, and thrive despite, debilitating illness and injury.

“I think the human and the computer are really, really quickly becoming one tightly-coupled cognitive unit,” the University of Amsterdam’s Shimon Whiteson recently told Business Insider. Expect the argument over AI to roll on for many years yet.