By Mark Richards.

Will artificial intelligence bring us untold benefits – eliminating traffic accidents, developing customised learning and giving us all a better quality of life? Or will it ultimately become so intelligent that it decides it no longer  needs us. MoneyGap looks at the background, the benefits – and the dangers…

What was the biggest technological development of my father’s lifetime? I would argue that it was flight – a development that literally shrank the world. The biggest development or change in my lifetime? Unquestionably the internet.

What about my children? Will it be something that I cannot yet imagine? After all, my Dad died in 1985: he simply could not have imagined the modern internet. Or will it be something that is already here – that has the power to radically re-shape and change our lives for generations to come?

I am talking, of course, about artificial intelligence and its handmaiden, robotics.

The lesson of history

No subject has the potential to make your glass half full or half empty more than AI. We have all seen the predictions that AI and robotics will destroy 30% of all the jobs in the world. No, says Information Age, AI will not destroy jobs, it will simply transform them.

In fairness we have always believed – going right back to the Luddites smashing up textile machinery in the 19th Century – that new technology would destroy jobs. Very often it does: but new technology also creates different jobs. Quite clearly the writing was on the wall for the saddlers when the first Model T Ford rolled off the production line – but have many millions have been employed in the car industry since then?

Hang on. What exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

Simply put, it is intelligence displayed by machines – the ability of a machine to work and react like a human. So, for example, Siri on your iPhone is a good example of an AI app.

It is generally accepted that there are three levels of AI – narrow, general and super-intelligent. ‘Narrow’ AI is AI that is designed to perform a specific task – Google’s search engine, for example. Chatbots being used to answer simple questions or booking applications that make suggestions are other examples of AI – as is the ubiquitous, ‘you might also like this’ on Amazon.

That takes us on to the general AI – usually known as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). This is the point at which AI intelligence is equivalent to human intelligence, and it can make decisions based on an understanding of its surroundings and the prevailing conditions. At this stage AI will be able to do ‘social perception’ tasks, such as negotiation or persuasion and will – to all intents and purposes – be indistinguishable from human intelligence.

You know what is coming. Super intelligence is the AI beloved of the movies and science fiction writers. It is the AI that is all-knowing and able to solve problems well beyond human capability. It is the point at which AI has to confront the question it has been asking itself for a while. Do I really need these humans any more…

The benefits of narrow AI

Artificial Intelligence: Friend or Foe?

Before we look at the Doomsday scenario, let us have the glass half full for a while and look at what AI has already given us: it is not just Siri and Google Search…

Sadly for this writer AI has already given us articles created for Associated Press and I suspect that five years from now people like me will have been quite adequately replaced by AI. In fact, I could almost create an app to replace myself right now – or at least tell the nerds what boxes it needed to tick. What is the subject? What conclusion do you want to reach? How many words? What style do you want to write it in? And do you want any humour in there?

Enough of my problems: AI has already created a perfume, written a movie trailer, created a video game and presented the news. And – I did not believe this when I read it – there is also an AI toothbrush. Do not want to talk to your wife in the morning? Watch the video – there is your answer…

What about the future?

AI has been called the fourth industrial revolution and it is developing at a rapid pace. It will bring us smart cities controlling their own traffic: autonomous vehicles virtually eliminating road traffic accidents, reduced energy use by better management of heat and light and a better all-round quality of life. It will develop individual, customised learning for students and will generate and test thousands of prototypes and developments for businesses.

So what is not to love about AI? Maybe, the rapid pace of its development. The original industrial revolution changed life and society as it was then known. Management consultants McKinsey have suggested that this AI-powered fourth industrial revolution is advancing ten times faster and at 300 times the scale of the original industrial revolution. So will us mere mortals be able to control it?

We are all doomed…

Sorry to spoil your weekend but the answer appears to be ‘no’ – at least according to two visionaries, entrepreneur Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking.

Elon Musk is the CEO of SpaceX and the co-founder of Tesla – and he thinks it is ‘highly likely’ that AI will eventually destroy humans. His worry is that AI will end up being controlled by just a few, hugely-powerful companies. “Between Facebook, Google and Amazon they already have more information about you than you are able to remember,” he said.

Musk almost certainly needs to add the Chinese government to that list of ‘hugely powerful companies.’ It seems to be the accepted wisdom now that China will overtake America as the world’s leading superpower. And AI will not just stay confined to trying to sell you a deal on Black Friday – there will inevitably be military applications. As Musk says, unless AI is proactively regulated, there will come a day when “robots walk down the street killing people.”

…Assuming that there are any people left. Interviewed in 2017 Stephen Hawking suggested that AI would keep evolving until it was superior to humans.

“I fear that AI may replace humans altogether,” he said. “If people design computer viruses then someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. There will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.”

I will leave you with that cheerful thought. My wife tells me that I want to re-decorate the dining room this weekend. Sadly, there is no AI app for that…