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AI bots will kill us all! Or at least may seriously inconvenience humans

Elon Musk again demands govt intervention to halt crazed computers

By Thomas Claburn, 17 Jul 2017

Analysis Elon Musk – the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and Neuralink, not to mention co-chairman of OpenAI and founder of The Boring Company – is once again warning that artificial intelligence threatens humanity.

In an interview at the National Governors Association 2017 Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island on Saturday, Musk insisted that AI endangers human civilization and called for its regulation.

"I have exposure to the most cutting edge AI and I think people should be really concerned about it," he said. "I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don't know how to react, you know, 'cause it seems so ethereal."

Musk said AI represents a rare case where regulation should be proactive rather than reactive, "because I think by the time we're reactive in AI regulation, it's too late."

Arguing that we need to depart from the traditional method of regulation, in which rules follow disaster and public outcry, Musk insisted that dangers posed by clever code running amok are so great that we cannot wait.

"AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization and I don't think people fully appreciate that," Musk declared, even as he allowed that regulation can be "pretty irksome" and businesses would prefer not to be saddled with onerous rules.

Fear of apocalyptic AI is a longstanding theme for Musk. He rang the same alarm bell back in 2014 at at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AeroAstro Centennial Symposium when he said, "I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that. … I'm increasingly inclined to think there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure we aren't doing something foolish."

Despite the potential for nuclear annihilation, flu pandemic, biowarfare, socio-economic upheaval, meteor strike, and climate catastrophe, Musk believes we need to focus more on overseeing algorithms.

Worries about Machiavellian machines, voiced by Musk and other technical luminaries like Stephen Hawking, have prompted conferences and calls to adopt protective principles.

Musk serves as co-chairman of OpenAI, a non-profit research company founded in late 2015, ostensibly to promote the development of AI that benefits humanity. The organization's initial blog post, penned by Greg Brockman and Ilya Sutskever, echoes Musk's framing of the situation: "It's hard to fathom how much human-level AI could benefit society, and it’s equally hard to imagine how much it could damage society if built or used incorrectly."

And it's hard to understand what AI actually refers to.

Hampering progress

Pascal Kaufmann, founder of Starmind, which makes an AI-flavored corporate question answering system, in an email to The Register voiced skepticism about conflating human intelligence and AI-oriented computation. "Such claims just foster this misconception and actually hamper progress in AI," he said.

Kaufmann sees regulating AI as a problem because we don't have a common definition for artificial intelligence or human intelligence.

"Before AI becomes a risk to our civilization, the brute-force automatization of processes and the loss of countless jobs worldwide pose a much larger conflict potential than sentient machines taking over: The simple efficiency increase of our labor challenges our society already," he said.

Jeffrey Bigham, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon's Language Technologies Institute, in a phone interview with The Register, said: "I think there's a reasonable concern to be thinking about our ability to understand what AI systems are doing. It's pretty worrying now that we're making a lot of decisions in part and in full with AI systems we don't fully understand, and that's only likely to increase."

Similarly, AI guru Andrew Ng once said worrying about killer artificial intelligence now is like worrying right now about overpopulation on Mars: sure, the latter may be a valid concern at some point, but we haven't set foot on the Red Planet yet.

The problem of black box code – software that operates in a way that can't be easily audited, understood, or anticipated – is a longstanding issue among those familiar with AI-oriented disciplines, such as deep learning, machine learning, reinforcement learning, and neural networks.

But it applies even to purely deterministic code, the sort not normally characterized as "intelligent." The May 6, 2010 Flash Crash saw major stock market losses in a matter of minutes as a result of a poorly designed trading algorithm. The problem wasn't AI so much as insufficient application of human intelligence – a failure to anticipate how the trading code would perform under unusual market conditions.

Transparency in terms of how code operates, said Bigham, is a matter of legitimate concern. While human decision-making can also be a black box of sorts, Bigham contends those biases can often be intuited. "Machine bias we don't have a way to query for or understand, especially with a black box model," he said.

Perhaps what Musk is asking for is simply the regulation of any computer code that can produce a substantive effect in the real world. To judge by the social harm done by unchecked Twitter propaganda bots, ticket scalping bots, and spam bots, regulation may be closer than it appears. ®

PS: We don't fear a robot revolution just yet, though. Here's a photo of a security patrol robot that fell into a water feature in a Washington DC office complex on Monday. Maybe this Dalek-like machine wasn't taking news of the 13th Dr Who too well. OpenAI also has today revealed some cool research into fooling neural-network classifiers.

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