If autonomous AI software, crunching data far more rapidly than humans, can help eradicate disease and poverty and introduce societal improvements and efficiencies, then we must embrace it, Leonhard says. But “at the same time we have to have governance. And right now there is no such thing.” He and others are pushing for human values to be codified into the design of AI systems.”
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Being a futurist in a fast-moving digital age can be tricky, so Gerd Leonhard doesn’t do predictions – he makes smart observations
When Gerd Leonhard speaks to an audience about the future, he sometimes likes to begin by playing black-and-white footage of the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. In the clip, Clarke, who wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubric, explains that anyone making pronouncements about the future has their work cut out.
Come up with something that sounds at all reasonable and you can be sure that in 20 or at most 50 years, the progress of science and technology will make it sound ridiculously conservative, Clarke says.
But Clarke concedes: “If by some miracle, a prophet could predict the future, exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everybody would laugh him to scorn.”
Gerd may describe himself as a “futurist”, but he heeds Clarke’s words. “I don’t do predictions,” he says. “I do observations. There’s a very big difference.” With some modesty, he adds: “It’s what anybody could do, if they had the time. But most people are too busy doing their jobs.”
Maybe. But Gerd was named in WIRED magazine’s list of the 100 top influencers in Europe, he has given keynote addresses around the world at conferences and been engaged by blue-chip corporate clients. And some of his observations are startling. His latest book, Technology vs Humanity, focuses on the relationship between us and the machines we’re creating.
An open letter to Microsoft and Google's Partnership on AI
Dear Francesca, Eric, Mustafa, Yann, Ralf, Demis and others at IBM, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon.
The Partnership on AI to benefit people and society is a welcome change from the usual celebration of disruption and magic technological progress. I hope it will also usher in a more holistic discussion about the global ethics of the digital age. Your announcement also coincides with the launch of my book Technology vs. Humanity which dramatises this very same question: How will technology stay beneficial to society?
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This open letter is my modest contribution to the unfolding of this new partnership. Data is the new oil - which now makes your companies the most powerful entities on the globe, way beyond oil companies and banks. The rise of ‘AI everywhere’ is certain to only accelerate this trend. Yet unlike the giants of the fossil-fuel era, there is little oversight on what exactly you can and will do with this new data-oil, and what rules you’ll need to follow once you have built that AI-in-the-sky. There appears to be very little public stewardship, while accepting responsibility for the consequences of your inventions is rather slow in surfacing.
In a world where machines may have an IQ of 50,000 and the Internet of Things may encompass 500 billion devices, what will happen with those important social contracts, values and ethics that underpin crucial issues such as privacy, anonymity and free will? Will significant human limitations such as ageing or even death soon be up for discussion as technology goes warp-drive? If the question is no longer about if technology can do something, but why...then who gets to decide this? Who is ‘mission control for humanity’? This is a good time to think about embracing a much wider responsibility to humanity by striving for a better mix of precaution and pro-action.
My book identifies what I call the "Megashifts". They are changing society at warp speed, and your organisations are in the eye of the storm: digitization, mobilisation and screenification, automation, intelligisation, disintermediation, virtualisation and robotisation, to name the most prominent. Megashifts are not simply trends or paradigm shifts, they are complete game changers transforming multiple domains simultaneously.
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The Megashifts could lead to heaven (imagine defeating cancer or achieving abundant energy or water), but proceeding without a framework of digital ethics could create a special kind of hell. Digital ethics currently fares no better than corporate sustainability (CSR) as far as the agenda of "Big Tech" is concerned. Dinner first, as Brecht put it, then morals. This is clearly unsustainable.
"If the question is no longer about if technology can do something, but why...who decides this?"Gerd Leonhard
Don’t get me wrong, profit and growth is a critical part of civilisation, and societies such as the Roman Empire that lost their profit base, quickly withered. But what if your next phase of evolution not only afforded you a digital ethics code – but required one? The very technology that enables unprecedented insight into our private lives also allows us to boycott brands we differ with morally at the tap of a screen.
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The upside of this is massive approval and uptake in the event of ethically-sound behaviour. We are on the cusp of the dynamic reputation era, when corporate behaviour can be rewarded or reprimanded with incredible alacrity. As the media attention is taken by data breaches of ever greater magnitude, the real narrative might just be the mainstreaming of ethical digital behaviour.Facebook, Google, Microsoft, IBM and Amazon partner to solve AI's ethical problem
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- 28 Sep 2016
Let’s not wait for intelligent machines with IQs of 50,000 before we get these ethical dilemmas sorted. Here are five bottom lines to consider.
Firstly, we are at ‘four’ on the exponential scale; right at the pivot point where things become unimaginably different. These developments will change everything, and frankly, we need you and companies like yours to embrace a new kind of stewardship for humanity. A holistic approach to human flourishing based on accepting your new AI-centric responsibilities would be novel.
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Secondly, technology is not what we seek - it’s how we seek. Your companies create and provide tools, not purpose. Humans are toolmakers, not tool-made, and we should keep it that way. How will you make sure your technologies remain tools and don’t become purposes (especially as that would be extremely attractive financially)? Will your AIs cause us to ‘forget ourselves’ or will they truly empower us?
Thirdly, we need to embrace technology but we should not become it. Do you believe humanity is headed towards a total symbiosis with technology, i.e. that we will soon become incapable of existing without augmenting ourselves with technology? Should we stop at some point in this inevitable man-machine convergence?
"Will your AIs cause us to ‘forget ourselves’ or will they truly empower us?"Gerd Leonhard
Fourthly, every amazing algorithm also needs a great ‘androrithm’ i.e. a balancing focus on protecting - and furthering - what makes us human. The question is no longer just what can be automated, but also what should not be automated, medialised or robotised.
Finally, Silicon Valley should not become ‘mission control for humanity’. It would be great if you could inject some rest-of-the-human-tribe thinking into your plans.
The Partnership for AI is a very promising concept. Let’s turn digital ethics from an oxymoron into the new normal. Let’s make sure we stay on Team Human. I welcome any opportunity to support your enterprise with futurised thinking.
Gerd Leonhard is the author of Technology VS. Humanity: The Coming Clash between Man and Machine (Fast Future Publishing)
Disclosure: with the exception of Amazon, the author has delivered speaking engagements for the companies mentioned above.
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