Monday, 05 Jun 2023

A race it might be impossible to stop: how worried should we be about AI?

A race it might be impossible to stop: how worried should we be about AI?

A race it might be impossible to stop: how worried should we be about AI?

Last Monday an eminent, elderly British scientist lobbed a grenade into the febrile anthill of researchers and corporations currently obsessed with artificial intelligence or AI (aka, for the most part, a technology called machine learning). The scientist was Geoffrey Hinton, and the bombshell was the news that he was leaving Google, where he had been doing great work on machine learning for the last 10 years, because he wanted to be free to express his fears about where the technology he had played a seminal role in founding was heading.

To say that this was big news would be an epic understatement. The tech industry is a huge, excitable beast that is occasionally prone to outbreaks of "irrational exuberance", ie madness. One recent bout of it involved cryptocurrencies and a vision of the future of the internet called "Web3", which an astute young blogger and critic, Molly White, memorably describes as "an enormous grift that's pouring lighter fluid on our already smoldering planet".

We are currently in the grip of another outbreak of exuberance triggered by "Generative AI" - chatbots, large language models (LLMs) and other exotic artefacts enabled by massive deployment of machine learning - which the industry now regards as the future for which it is busily tooling up.

Recently, more than 27,000 people - including many who are knowledgeable about the technology - became so alarmed about the Gadarene rush under way towards a machine-driven dystopia that they issued an open letter calling for a six-month pause in the development of the technology. "Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth," it said, "and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources."

It was a sweet letter, reminiscent of my morning sermon to our cats that they should be kind to small mammals and garden birds. The tech giants, which have a long history of being indifferent to the needs of society, have sniffed a new opportunity for world domination and are not going to let a group of nervous intellectuals stand in their way.

Which is why Hinton's intervention was so significant. For he is the guy whose research unlocked the technology that is now loose in the world, for good or ill. And that's a pretty compelling reason to sit up and pay attention.

He is a truly remarkable figure. If there is such a thing as an intellectual pedigree, then Hinton is a thoroughbred.

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