Time to tame machines before it’s too late

By Howard Yu
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, March 11, 2016
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Along with Google, IBM has pushed forward into cognitive computing. IBM's Watson, hailed as the first computer capable of understanding natural human language, shows us how artificial intelligence can go beyond games and trivia.

By digesting millions of pages of medical journals and patient data, Watson provides recommendations—from additional blood tests to the latest clinical trails available—to doctors and physicians. A cancer doctor, for example, only needs to describe a patient's symptoms to Watson in plain spoken English, over an iPad application.

Naturally, companies have little choice but to double down on AI. The prospect of deploying ever-smarter bots as a cheap alternative to customer service, for instance, would alone be enough to convince any Fortune 500 executive of the potential of such technology.

AlphaGo, in that sense, is an early indicator on how the near future may be filled with never-before-dreamt-of possibilities. Such breakneck advances no doubt irk many observers.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, made a stirring comment, saying artificial intelligence could "potentially be more dangerous than nukes."

Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has expressed grave concerns about AI. "The future is scary and very bad for people," he argued. "Will we be the gods? Will we be the family pets? Or will we be ants that get stepped on?" For the first time, we have business leaders who are steeped in information technology projecting an apocalyptic outcome.

Such concerns should prompt reflection and preparation at all levels of society.

Already, some 1,000 high profile AI experts have jointly signed an open letter calling for a ban on "offensive autonomous weapons." If history is a guide, international protocols surrounding what AI systems are, and how they should be built, will soon emerge.

The concept of setting up international protocols is not new in IT. Even in the Internet, worldwide protocols had helped ensure neutral access by all parties and efficient information exchange.

Given the sweeping scope of AI, no one can afford to ignore recent developments. As said by Mary Kay Ash, there are three types of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened.

Let us not become that last type.

Howard Yu is a professor at IMD business school. The views are his own.

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