While the dark shadows of war gather over Ukraine, scientists in a lab in Oxfordshire have built a star, managing to generate energy from fusing hydrogen atoms for a full 5 seconds. It’s a major milestone in the development of a new clean energy source. What these two situations have in common, is that they show the best and worst-case scenarios for our use of Artificial Intelligence. AI is accelerating scientific and medical discovery; but at the same time, the use of drones threatens to transform warfare, raising deep ethical questions about decision-making and control over life and death.
Today’s robots are very clever, and they’re also trained to be independent. They can learn from scratch and be resourceful about finding data; and they can re-programme themselves if they decide it would improve their performance. That means, these days they have a capacity that looks a lot like free will.
Rewind a few million years, and imagine you’re in the lab with God, poring over the blueprints for this new thing called ‘human.’ The big decision today is whether you design in free will or not. If you do, these humans of yours will surely fail. But if you don’t, they’ll experience life as meaningless, with no control over their destiny. Which do you choose?
We face that decision now with AI, this generation’s opportunity to play God. And like the dilemma we have with our own kids, there’s probably no right or wrong: do we let them make their own mistakes, or wade in to save them from themselves? For me, when I’m deciding which way to go, it’s a mix of figuring out what’s best for them, and also who I want to be as a parent. With warfare, I’d want to wade in and stop senseless impersonal machine killing; with trying to find clean energy, I’d give AI free rein.
What we decide now about AI, will define our humanity in the future. Luckily as a species we’ve been parenting for years, so we’ve learned quite a lot about when we need rules and when we don’t. It’s that familiar balancing act, of striving to maintain our own humanity throughout, that’ll be our best guide for the future.
I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.