Artificial intelligence and the future of the human race

Artificial intelligence and the future of the human race

I doubt you lie awake nights worrying about being taken over by a robot. I’m afraid that you will soon start to do so. We know that digitisation is going to lose many jobs, blue collar and white collar. Job loss is inevitable and nobody has yet come up with a serious solution to the problem of very high levels of unemployment. They will do so soon but it won’t be easy.

Today we are considering the rise of Artificial Intelligence. My No 3 son, Tim, is Chairman of a company at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence as applied to the retail trade. That doesn’t mean that I understand a lot about it, merely that I am very proud of my son. But, like you, I worry about where this is all leading us – not individually but as a species.

Listen to David Attenborough and you will discover that thousands of life species die out every week. Humans have lasted reasonably well but not for all that long in the history of time and we are now transforming our world with digitisation not dreamt of fifty years ago. Is the human being to follow them into oblivion? Probably not but in fifty years’ time we may not be recognisable to today’s youngsters as the humans they grew up with.

For all that, I am encouraged by two eminent people’s views.

“Near-apocalyptic visions of AI’s future are illusory” Professor Margaret Boden

“Machines learn the hard way. They can’t replicate creativity; recombining higher-level abstractions and imagining future based on very little information or example. They can’t have a hunch, even like scientists do. The algorithms we’re studying today are crude approximations because they don’t rely on the same principle as the brain.”
Ralf Herbrich, Amazon’s Berlin-based head of machine learning

Hope for humanity? I think so, but with a big caveat. Humans have developed by being tremendously adaptive. Climates, geography, mechanisation, industrialisation, birth control, population explosion, new diseases, all call for responses that involve both stabilising humanity and allowing it to develop. That’s a tricky combination but it is one we are used to.

Every parent knows that they must develop their child but at the same time stabilise her or him so that they stay within what society will accept. When there is too much emphasis on development at the expense of stability we lose control of ourselves. When stability is rewarded at the expense of development we stagnate. The correct path is narrow but visible.

So let’s get everyone – including you – thinking about the balance. Let’s try to agree the things of humanity we want to keep and the things we can do without. Let’s re-assess our values so that our adaptation to artificiality leaves us understanding the finer things of life, including the ones we have just discovered. Let’s be able to continue perceiving beauty and understanding that it is also to be found in places we have yet to explore.

Let’s sleep easy knowing that we are in control of our species for as long as we want.