AI: evil or avatar?

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You don’t have to be a sci-fi wizard to remember Avatar.  The 2009 fantasy blockbuster was equally entrancing for trekkies and school teachers alike.

In the epic science fiction film, writer and director James Cameron envisioned a new world inhabited by an alien species known as the Na’vi, who lived in perfect harmony with their deity, Ewya, on an exoplanetary moon known as Pandora. All was well—a perfect display of symbiosis between nature and its inhabitants—until the human race had to show up. And once again, it was a case of ‘winner takes all’, where the collective force of human greed was unleashed to tailspin perfect order into chaos.

Albeit fantastically far-fetched, there was something deeply resonating about the movie. What made Avatar rack up two Academy Awards and USD2 billion was more than just great special effects and Sam Worthington’s acting. It was the sense that ‘this is us now—and this could be us later.’ The plot was a familiar one, with humanity as the classic villain, willing to plunder paradise for temporal gain but to their ultimate demise.

In 1974, biochemist James Lovelock posited a new paradigm known as the Gaia theory. Essentially, he said that organisms and their inorganic surroundings have evolved together into one living, self-regulating complex system over time. The biota, or web of interdependent organisms, have determined everything from global temperatures to ocean salinity—anything that would ensure “life maintains conditions suitable for its own survival.” In short, life has been making a way for itself over countless centuries.

Laws of consequence

The concept of consequence is nothing new. Scientists have been studying its behaviour for centuries. Newton reminds us in his third law that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; Clausius and Kelvin tell us in the first law of thermodynamics that energy cannot be created or destroyed —only transformed from one form to another. So, when we extract oil from the earth, transforming its thermal energy into kinetic energy to turn a turbine to generate electricity for our household use, we have to know there will be a consequence on the other side of the equation. Look no further than our melting ice caps for exhibit A.

But, as our devices become all the more embedded with intelligence, and IoT rolls merrily our way, we have less excuses not to connect the dots into the future. Machine learning will increasingly make sense of the vast oceans of data flooding in daily, filtering out helpful insights and patterns to enable improvements in nearly every sphere of life.

Apocalyptic alternative

Of course, there are warning lights everywhere. The ubiquitous concern is that we’re frantically investing in a world order that could potentially outrun our human capacities and ingenuity, offering no promise to keep us in it someday. Experts like Nick Bostrom warn us of the grave danger in controlling AI, including Elon Musk who predicts its powers to trigger WW3 and eventually wipe out humanity.

But apocalyptic singularity is only one way of looking at it. Some of the world’s top entrepreneurs are suggesting a more cooperative, hands-on approach to the issue. Industry leaders such as Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have invested billions in the research and promotion of ethical AI to ‘benefit humanity as a whole’. Called OpenAl, the new non-profit is aimed at developing artificial intelligence that will serve as a tool to help solve major challenges, including climate change and food security. They argue our technologies can become forces for greater good, rather than shovels for our species’ grave. Says Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, “The power of AI technology is it can solve problems that scale to the whole planet.”

This glimpse of the future was crafted by: Matt Gurr. Aurecon’s award-winning blog, Just Imagine provides a glimpse into the future for curious readers, exploring ideas that are probable, possible and for the imagination.





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