“The rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.” Stephen Hawking.

Cambridge University have recently unveiled a new research centre that will delve into the complicated implications of artificial intelligence. The centre will look into AI applications ranging from increasingly smart smartphones to robot surgeons and killer military droids.  According to Stephen Hawking, who recently came out in support of the new facility, the research done by the new centre “will be crucial to the future of our civilisation and of our species”. The director of the centre, Stephen Cave, made a statement on the ultimate goal of the research that will take place; “It’s about how to ensure intelligent artificial systems have goals aligned with human values and ensure computers don’t evolve spontaneously in new, unwelcome, directions”.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is intelligence exhibited by machines. The term is applied when a machine mimics cognitive functions that are associated with human minds, such as learning and problem solving. The real aim is to develop a computer system that’s able to perform a task that would usually require human intelligence. Visual perception, speech recognition, decision-making and translation between languages are all examples of human behaviour that can now be simulated by machines. Major international groups have competing ambitions in the research and development of AI. Google has integrated the technology into its new smartphone, Apple and Microsoft are proposing new personal assistants, and Sony and Volkswagen are also investing heavily in AI development.

Due to the increase in research and development of autonomous cars, it is now possible for the vehicles to scan the environment for potential danger and make informed decisions based on the data collected, entirely autonomously. Google have developed an algorithm that has the potential to allow self-driving cars to teach themselves how to drive through experience, the same way humans do.

Other sectors like advertising and marketing make use of machine learning by using customised suggestions for users. Nowadays, you could be viewing anything from potential cars to new shoes and on subsequent web sessions you will be exposed to adverts for similar products. Effectively, an algorithm has collected your browser searches, and from that data suggested a similar product based on those previous searches. This kind of advertising acts as a kind of echo chamber that monitors your online behavior and reflects back to you products you might like.

Similar algorithms are used by online streaming services that analyse previous watching habits and recommend new content based on those previous choices. This shift on responsibility from humans to AI has reportedly saved services such as Netflix over one billion dollars a year. And it’s safe to say that this won’t be the only industry that will benefit from the inevitable rise of AI in the near future.

The potential for AI  to wipe out a lot of jobs is huge; iPhone manufacturer Foxconn have replaced 60,000 factory workers with robots, fast food chains have begun implementing digital ordering systems and warehouses are being kitted out with cutting edge automated systems that eradicate the needs for manual labor. Oxford researchers have estimated that half of all jobs are vulnerable to disruption caused by artificial intelligence, robots, and automation in the coming years.

There’s a popular theory that in the next few decades, AI will push a lot of humans out of the job market completely. An idea that has been researched thoroughly by Yuval Noah Harari, a tenured professor in History and the author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  Harari explains that in the same way the industrial revolution created a brand new urban working class due to evolving technologies, AI has the potential to create a new class, one that is rendered useless due to automation.

A fear of machines replacing humans is nothing new, and in the past the updated technology has pushed humans into jobs that required less and less physical labour and into jobs that require more cognitive and mental ability. Now however, machines are coming for those jobs too, as they are proving time and time again that human cognitive behaviour can be copied and in a lot of cases improved upon to carry out tasks. From AI doctors to machine soldiers on the battle field, it’s hard to predict which jobs and sectors will be affected most by developing technology.

So, if we are to see the rise of a useless class, the question that arises from that is what to do with millions of economically useless people? Two hundred and twenty four global investors with more than one hundred billion dollars of investable capital say that governments are not prepared for the coming of artificial intelligence. In such a scenario, there is the potential for massive social change and upheaval, which could lead to a new kind of social contract that would need to be implemented.

Elon Musk, CEO of both Tesla Motors and SpaceX, believes that as people become more and more economically redundant increasing automation would give rise to a basic universal income. “The new unemployed would thus be given time to devote themselves to more interesting things and ultimately to bring society further” Musk said. With this type of solution, a universal basic income would mean that no person could fall through the cracks, but all would be given a level playing field.

This model for the future would allow everyone to live and work the way they want in this technologically advancing age, where many jobs will become superfluous. Those opposing the idea of a basic universal income, however, believe that taking jobs away from people may cause more harm than good. In various psychology studies it is found that working day to day increases happiness for a lot of people, as they feel they are making a worthwhile contribution to society. By taking those jobs away, people might find it hard to recreate themselves as people who don’t need to work and may in turn feel disregarded.

Elon Musk also co-chairs OpenAI, a research company for artificial intelligence, whose aim is to carefully promote and develop friendly AI in such a way as to benefit, rather than harm humanity as a whole. The idea of harnessing the power of AI to improve life for all should be the priority, but an equally powerful motivator to create AI to improve profits is where the concern lies for the researchers at the new AI computer laboratory in Cambridge. It is likely that every aspect of our lives will be transformed by these developments. Success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, but it will need to be managed and regulated if we want that change to be a positive one for humanity.

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  1. Larry

    Fantastic article Mr Wickens.

    This isn't a subject matter I had at the fore-front of my mind, but now I am factually terrified.