AI Threat Is Tech's Fart in the Room

Google is excited about this year's leaps in artificial intelligence. The rest of us should be worried.

Iain Morris, International Editor

November 24, 2016

5 Min Read
AI Threat Is Tech's Fart in the Room

I was at IoT World in Dublin this week and something Google said at the Informa-organized conference left me feeling distinctly queasy.

It was during a breakout session on analytics, and Dvir Yuval, who heads up EMEA online partnerships for Google Cloud, was talking about AlphaGo. For anyone who's been living in a cave this year (and with Trump and Brexit to worry about, that's probably advisable), AlphaGo is the artificial intelligence Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) developed to challenge Lee Sedol at Go, a board game that seems to have originated in ancient China. Go is fiendishly complex, by all accounts, and Lee Sedol is one of the world's best players. (See Google: Little Chance Today's Startups Become Tomorrow's Giants.)

Figure 1: AlphaGo versus Alpha Male Google's AlphaGo AI famously beat Lee Sedol, one of the world's best Go players, during a contest in March this year. (Source: flickr/Buster Benson) Google's AlphaGo AI famously beat Lee Sedol, one of the world's best Go players, during a contest in March this year. (Source: flickr/Buster Benson)

Disappointingly, for anyone outside Google, AlphaGo won 4-1. The victory was particularly troubling for supporters of homo sapiens because Go, according to experts, demands far more creativity and intuition than chess. What Yuval finds especially intriguing is that some of AlphaGo's moves made zero sense to commentators and other world-class players. In soccer terms, they were like a player "kicking the ball out of the stadium," he says. Except they weren't, because they ultimately allowed AlphaGo to win. As far as Yuval is concerned, this suggests that AI could eventually push the boundaries of creativity in a way humans cannot.

Now this may be something Google and those in the AI community applaud, but I'm inclined to view it in the way your typical triceratops might have looked at the approaching asteroid. Machine-generated creativity and ingenuity is a kind of extinction event. It might not wipe us out (initially), but it will guarantee our species' uselessness. Imagination and innovation are the last refuge of mankind. Once robots become more innovative, we are pretty much finished.

This doomsday scenario will be familiar to science fiction fans everywhere. What's much scarier is the obvious pace of AI development in science fact. Five of the world's ten most valuable companies are now technology firms heavily focused on AI and run largely by machines. Facebook, one of them, is currently worth $347 billion on the Nasdaq and employed fewer than 12,700 humans at the end of last year. To put that in context, carmaker Ford, which had nearly 200,000 humans on its books in 2015, has a value of about $48 billion today.

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Ford is clearly overstaffed, but even Facebook relies too heavily on humans. In future, a small number of senior executives, dealmakers and science geeks will preside over a much more automated business. Computers will use big data to decide which new features should be introduced, and then design algorithms to support them. Many of today's employees will find their only interaction with Facebook is as consumers.

Few are prepared to face up to this, however. To borrow a quote from Canadian politician Michelle Rempel, the issue has become like "a fart in the room" -- something no one really wants to discuss (Rempel was referring to the Canadian province of Alberta when she gave vent to the simile this week). Sure, we've had plenty of dystopian visions from authors and filmmakers, as this excellent blog from Light Reading's Brian Santo points out. But the industry giants are either pretending that nothing smells rotten, or simply don't care. (See How to Speak Knowledgeably About the AI Threat.)

Figure 2: Is Google Skynet? Terminator 2's Miles Bennett Dyson (pictured, as played by Joe Morton in the movie) develops an AI called Skynet that starts a war against humanity. Terminator 2's Miles Bennett Dyson (pictured, as played by Joe Morton in the movie) develops an AI called Skynet that starts a war against humanity.

Either explanation is conceivable. For the next few years, at least, Google and our other technology overlords will be the big winners from machine learning and AI. That's why Yuval can get excited about AlphaGo's creativity and not fret about its implications.

Like the growing use of fossil fuels, AI's rise seems inevitable -- something global powerbrokers are pushing for even though it will eventually kill us. Google is the oil tycoon who never talks about climate change. Sooner or later, though, it will have to confront the bogeyman. In this year's populist upheavals are signs of frustration at an uncaring establishment and the yawning wealth gap between an uber-rich minority and the poor masses. Globalization, free trade and immigration have been cast as the villains by the likes of Donald Trump and the UK's Nigel Farage. Yet machine learning and the automation it brings will fuel the popular anger, hurling more on to the scrapheap of humanity. AlphaGo shows we are all at risk.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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