In the movie “The Terminator,” released in 1984, director James Cameron and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced the idea that mankind might invent a computer network so intelligent – “Skynet,” it was called – that it would decide humanity is a threat that must be destroyed.
It’s looking less and less like science fiction and more and more like a warning.
According to a New York Times report, Geoffrey Hinton, the so-called “godfather of artificial intelligence” who recently retired from Google, is warning of the increasingly imminent dangers of the technology he helped develop.
“I thought it was 30 to 50 years or even longer away,” he told the Times. “Obviously, I no longer think that.”
With artificial intelligence, or AI, machines can learn like humans, and then they can communicate with us. As Hinton explained, digital systems can learn much faster than humans because they all have the same model of the world.
“And all these copies can learn separately but share their knowledge instantly,” he told the BBC. “So it’s as if you had 10,000 people and whenever one person learnt something, everybody automatically knew it.”
Like all technologies, AI can make our lives more efficient, which in some ways will make them better and some ways not. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Thursday that Walmart is using “chatbot” programs that can simulate conversations and negotiate contracts with up to 2,000 suppliers at the same time, which no human could do.
As this becomes more common, many jobs will be lost and many will be changed, and people will have to adapt. This is not new. Technology disruption happens all the time.
But here’s another example. A friend who owns an Arkansas-based retail store chain told me his marketing department’s newsletter articles have recently improved. When he asked his marketing people what happened, they said they started plugging information into an artificial engine that was writing the stories automatically.
So how’s that technology disruption looking now, fellow writers?
Even more concerning is what AI will do to our concept of reality. As Hinton noted, AI makes it possible to create very realistic-looking fake photos, videos and text. With so-called “deep-fake technology,” a video can seemingly depict the president of the United States, or anyone else, saying something they did not say. Surely soon it will be almost impossible for the average person to tell fact from fiction – something we’re obviously not that good at, anyway.
With AI, machines can learn from us and then copy us. That’s scary, especially when the readily available technology falls into the wrong hands. The Federal Trade Commission last month issued a consumer alert warning that AI voice clone technology can generate phone calls that sound like a loved one based on short audio clips found on the internet. Crooks can use those computer-generated voices to scam people out of money.
The FTC says that if it sounds like someone you know is calling asking for money, hang up and call the person directly. But what will we have to do in the future? In “Terminator 2,” the heroes asked about the family dog to determine it was actually the bad terminator on the phone.
Artificial intelligence is unfortunately only part of an even bigger picture: In order to make our modern way of life possible, we have created products, systems and processes that threaten to overwhelm us. The disposable plastics that enable our global consumerist economy are filling our oceans with trash and threatening the food chain. The greenhouse gases we emit are warming the planet. Government taxing and spending policies are creating ever-growing mountains of debt. It’s all getting out of control.
What does the future look like with AI? CBS News recently asked Hinton if it could destroy humanity. His response was, “It’s not inconceivable. That’s all I’ll say.” In other words, it’s no longer just science fiction.
There have been times throughout history when humans have faced harsh consequences for their collective iniquities and excesses. We may be nearing one of those times, perhaps as a result of more than one iniquity.
This time, if the big bad thing happens, how long will it take before we know it’s real?
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.
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