By Simon Rose
Artificial intelligence or AI is often discussed these days in the media, and even during the pandemic humans continue to make technological advances. Science fiction, whether on screen or in print, often features powerful computers. Some of the stories from decades ago were set in eras that at the time were far into the future, but these are now much closer to when we’re currently living.
Technological advances aren’t always for the best, or at least can sometimes be a double-edged sword. This can happen even if the original inventors weren’t thinking ahead, wondering if their invention might one day be used for something that wasn’t good. Think of the pioneers of aviation, who most likely weren’t considering the possibility of armed planes shooting at each other in the sky or dropping bombs when they first attempted to make the dream of flying a reality. Similarly with atomic power, scientists were aware of the possibility of developing atomic energy, but much of this was based on theories. Yet the breakthrough eventually came, after which of course came the development of deadly weapons, which are still with us today.
Remotely operated aerial drones were originally developed for dangerous military missions, but later began to be used for aerial photography, agriculture, in the movie and TV industry, and for delivering products. Drones have already been used by police forces for things like monitoring traffic or in search and rescue operations, but some police forces are considering using drones that can capture high quality images from as far away as 457 metres (1500 feet). This will have implications for privacy or might be used for surveillance of groups that are peacefully and legally protesting.
Even social media has many aspects that people aren’t happy with, although they continue to use the platforms, despite the fact that machines are becoming increasingly powerful. AI is used on social media to predict or influence our behaviour so that companies make money from their online ads, depending on what we decide to link to. AI is very much part of our daily lives in other areas too, used by things such as banking, search engines on the internet, and apps on our cell phones, while translation between languages, dictation for text messages, and facial or image recognition has really advanced in the last few years.
Experts believe that machines that are more intelligent than people will definitely be developed before the end of the twenty-first century, with that all this entails. However, it’s important for us to stay in control as AI becomes more and more powerful. For example, if we set AI the task of curing a deadly disease, it could decide to develop a way to give everyone on the planet the disease, so that the AI could use the population in an experiment to find the cure. We’d need to set limits at the outset and restrict what the technology is able to do to find this elusive cure, without killing everyone. Maybe we need to work on building technology that understands that we’re just asking it investigate whether or not something’s possible, but that the machine has to ask a human for permission to continue, similar to how we’re currently asked if we’re sure we want to delete something on our phone or computer.
There’s still a way to go before artificial intelligence reaches the level of sophistication featured in movies and TV shows. Yet while AI might not advance far enough to cause real issues all that soon, it’s certainly not just science fiction anymore.