Photo Credit: Microsoft
For many social media companies, artificial intelligence is the next frontier. That’s both exciting and a bit daunting at the same time. It means super-efficient algorithms could be powering the next generation of social media newsfeeds. And it could open up the potential for radically new types of social experiences involving AI-powered bots. But it also includes the prospect that this AI might get out of control, opening up a whole set of unintended consequences in which those cute AI bots turn into cruel robot overlords.
A warning from Microsoft
A few years ago, any out-of-control AI scenario might have been the basis for a good dystopian science fiction film or a YouTube conspiracy theory video. But by 2024, warns Microsoft president Brad Smith, science fiction could turn into science fact. In an interview with the BBC, Smith suggested that AI technology is already racing far ahead of earlier predictions, potentially leaving humanity in its wake within a few years. In a worst-case scenario, we could already be setting the foundation for a 1984-type scenario, in which an all-knowing, all-seeing surveillance state is powered by AI. If you think Facebook knows too much about you now, just wait until 2024, when it might know everything you say, see or hear.
And that’s where things get really dangerous. At some point, we might reach a point in which AI evolves into a type of worldwide super-intelligence, capable of things not even fathomable today to most humans. Famed computer scientist Ray Kurzweil calls this point of time “The Singularity” – it’s the point where machine-powered intelligence is greater than the sum of all human intelligence combined. This super-intelligence will know more than all of humanity combined, it will be fluent in every language, and it will be able to monitor all humans in real-time across the globe. It might even be able to predict what you will do before you do it, just like in the famous Hollywood movie “Minority Report.”
The responsibility of social media companies
Tech companies bear a special responsibility in preventing this from happening. They must help to protect humans against an Orwellian “1984” scenario. Elon Musk, for example, has said that his goal of building a brain-machine interface is one way to “mitigate the existential threat of AI.” The only way to stay ahead of AI, Musk says, is to merge man with machine. In many ways, it’s possible to see how this is happening today. The average person alive today has access to all of the world’s information and learning, thanks to Google. The average person today is connected to a world-wide “hive mind” of people from around the globe, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.
At the very least, social media companies need to help write the rules, policies, and regulations that will govern AI. For example, they must help to prevent bias and discrimination from being hard-coded into AI. Already, there are complaints from concerned citizens that AI-powered image recognition is being trained on a certain set of images and values that are largely White and Western. If you think human discrimination is systemic and dangerous, just wait until you encounter AI-powered discrimination. You may not be allowed to attend certain events or get a bank loan. You might not be allowed on public transport. And the AI overlords might even decide that you deserve to be locked down in your home if you don’t meet certain social criteria.
A safe AI future
The good news is that most people agree on a few ground rules for AI. The idea of fully autonomous military weapons, for example, is repugnant to many. Do we really want AI-powered killing machines deciding who gets to live during any conflict? Maybe an AI-powered drone will decide to wipe out an entire city, as long as it means accomplishing some strategic goal hard-wired into its machine learning interface.
The bad news, though, is that some nations around the world – especially China – appear to be embracing AI for all of its limitless potential to support global surveillance efforts. From China’s perspective, AI can play a powerful role in helping to monitor (and control) a population using social credit scores. China has specifically said that it hopes to be the global AI leader by 2030. So we have less than a decade to ensure that the AI future is one that is best for all of humanity, and not just one nation.