Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the most important technology we’re developing this decade.
It’s a massive opportunity for humanity, not a threat.
So, what is AI?
Broadly, AI is the ability of a computer to understand your question, search its vast memory banks, and give you the best, most accurate, answer. AI is the ability of a computer to process a vast amount of information for you, make decisions, and take (and/or advise you to take) appropriate action.
You may know early versions of AI as Siri on your iPhone, or IBM’s Watson supercomputer.
Watson made headlines back in 2011 by winning Jeopardy, and now it’s helping doctors treat cancer patients by processing massive amounts of clinical data and cross-referencing thousands of individual cases and medical outcomes. Apple’s Siri rests in the palm of your hand, giving directions, making recommendations and even cracking jokes.
But these are the early, “weak” versions of AI. What’s coming this next decade will be more like JARVIS from the movie Iron Man. But this technology won’t be just for Tony Stark.
Why AI Is a Massive Opportunity
AI will level the global playing field.
Today, Google’s search engine gives a teenager with a smartphone in Mumbai and a billionaire in Manhattan equal access to the world’s information.
In the future, AI will democratize the ability for everyone to have equal access to services ranging from healthcare to finance advice.
AI will be your physician.
AI will be your financial advisor.
AI will be your teacher and that of your children.
AI will be your fashion designer.
AI will be your chef.
AI will be your entertainer.
And likely it will do all of these things for free, or nearly for free, independent of who you are or where you live. Ultimately, AIs will dematerialize, demonetize and democratize all of these services, dramatically improving the quality of life for eight billion people, pushing us closer towards a world of abundance.
Why I Don’t Fear AI (At Least, Not For Now)
First of all, we (humans) consistently overreact to new technologies. Our default evolutionary response to new things that we don’t understand is to fear the worst. Nowadays, the fear is promulgated by a flood of dystopian Hollywood movies and negative news that keeps us in fear of the future.
In the 1980s, when DNA restriction enzymes were discovered, making genetic engineering possible, the fear mongers warned the world of devastating killer engineered viruses and mutated life forms.
What we got was miracle drugs and extraordinary increases in food production.
Rather than extensive government regulations, a group of biologists, physicians, even lawyers came together at the Asilomar Conference on recombinant DNA to discuss the potential biohazards and regulation of biotechnology and to draw up voluntary guidelines to ensure the safety of recombinant DNA technology.
The guidelines they came up with allowed the researchers to move forward safely and continue to innovate, and we’ve been using them for 30 years.
The cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997 led to prophesies that in just a few years we would have armies of cloned super-soldiers, parents implanting Einstein genes in their unborn children, and warehouses of zombies being harvested for spare organs.
To my knowledge, none of this has come true.
The Benefits Outweigh the Risks
That being said, I do acknowledge that strong AI (versus narrow or weak AI) is different — it is perhaps the most important and profound technological development humanity will ever make. (Note: Strong AI is a thinking machine closer to human or superhuman thought, versus narrow AI, which is more like Siri or Google’s search engine.)
And, as with all technologies since fire and stone tools, there are dangers to consider.
However, as Ray Kurzweil has argued, I think the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks and dangers.
As Ray says, “The main reason I believe that AI will be beneficial is that it will be decentralized and widely distributed as it is today. It is not in the hands of one person or one organization or a few but rather in over a billion hands and will become even more ubiquitous as we go into the future. We are all going to enhance ourselves with AI. The world is getting exponentially more peaceful as documented by Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
A Tool, Not a Threat
AI will be an incredibly powerful tool that we can use to expand our capabilities and access to resources.
Kevin Kelly describes it as an “opportunity to elevate and sharpen our own ethics and morality and ambition.”
He goes on, “We’ll quickly find that trying to train AIs to be more humanistic will challenge us to be more humanistic. In the way that children can better their parents, the challenge of rearing AIs is an opportunity — not a horror. We should welcome it.”
In short, humanity will ultimately collaborate and co-evolve with AI.
In fact, at the XPRIZE, we’re currently working on designing an “AI-Human Collaboration XPRIZE” with our friends at TED.
When we talk about all of the problems we have on Earth, and the need to solve them, it is only through such AI-human collaboration that we will gain the ability to solve our grandest challenges and truly create a world of abundance.