One of the most famous sayings about technology is the “law” laid out by the late American historian Melvin Kranzberg: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”
It’s a great saying: brief, but packed with instruction, like a beautifully poetic line of code. If I understand it correctly, it means that technology isn’t inherently good or bad, but that it will certainly impact upon us in some way — which means that its effects are not neutral. A similarly brilliant quote came from the French cultural theorist Paul Virilio: “the invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.”
To adopt that last image, artificial intelligence (A.I.) is the mother of all ships. It promises to be as significant a transformation for the world as the arrival of electricity was in the nineteenth and twentieth century. But while many of us will coo excitedly over the latest demonstration of DeepMind’s astonishing neural networks, a lot of the discussion surrounding A.I. is decidedly negative. We fret about robots stealing jobs, autonomous weapons threatening the world’s wellbeing, and the creeping privacy issues of data-munching giants. Heck, once the dream of achieving artificial general intelligence arrives, some pessimists seem to think the only debate is whether we’re obliterated by Terminator-style robots or turned into grey goo by nanobots.
While some of this technophobia is arguably misplaced, it’s not hard to see critics’ point. Tech giants like Google and Facebook have hired some of the greatest minds of our generation, and put them to work not curing disease or rethinking the economy, but coming up with better ways to target us with ads. The Human Genome Project, this ain’t! Shouldn’t a world-changing technology like A.I. be doing a bit more… world changing?
A COURSE IN MORAL A.I.?
2018 may be the year when things start to change. While they’re still small seeds just beginning to sprout green shoots, there’s more evidence that the subject of making A.I. into a true force for good is starting to gain momentum. For example, starting this semester, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) will be teaching a new class, titled “Artificial Intelligence for Social Good.” It touches on many of the topics you’d expect from a graduate and undergraduate class — optimization, game theory, machine learning, and sequential decision making — and will look at these through the lens of how each will impact society. The course will also challenge students to build their own ethical A.I. projects, giving them real world experience with creating potentially life-changing A.I.