It’s in all of our Interests to Understand How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming our World

Our World in Data | Max Roser | Dec 15, 2022

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How AI gets built is currently decided by a small group of technologists. As this technology is transforming our lives, it should be in all of our interest to become informed and engaged.

  • In some way, it should be obvious how technology can fundamentally transform the world. But while we have seen the world transform before, we have seen these transformations play out over the course of generations. What is different now is how very rapid these technological changes have become.  It has become common that technologies unimaginable in one’s youth become ordinary in later life.
    • The majority of surveyed AI experts believe there is a real chance that human-level artificial intelligence will be developed within the next decades, and some believe that it will exist much sooner.

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  • What's at stake? All major technological innovations lead to a range of positive and negative consequences. For AI, the spectrum of possible outcomes – from the most negative to the most positive – is extraordinarily wide.
    • AI systems can cause harm when people use them maliciously. For example, when they are used in politically-motivated disinformation campaigns or to enable mass surveillance.
    • But AI systems can also cause unintended harm, when they act differently than intended or fail.
      • For example, in the Netherlands the authorities used an AI system which falsely claimed that an estimated 26,000 parents made fraudulent claims for child care benefits. The false allegations led to hardship for many poor families, and also resulted in the resignation of the Dutch government in 2021.
    • Negative impacts at scale: As AI becomes more powerful, the possible negative impacts could become much larger. Many of these risks have rightfully received public attention: more powerful AI could lead to mass labor displacement, or extreme concentrations of power and wealth. In the hands of autocrats, it could empower totalitarianism through its suitability for mass surveillance and control.

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  • Can’t we just tell the AI to not do those things? It is definitely possible to build an AI that avoids any particular problem we foresee, but it is hard to foresee all the possible harmful unintended consequences.
    • I recommend reading the book The Alignment Problem by Brian Christian and Benjamin Hilton’s article ‘Preventing an AI-related catastrophe’.
    • If we fail to develop this broad-based understanding, then it will remain the small elite that finances and builds this technology that will determine how one of the – or plausibly the – most powerful technology in human history will transform our world.

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