When top Egyptian TV anchor Osama Kamal interviewed Sophia, a robot visiting Egypt for the Creative Industry Summit held in Cairo in 2018, people were simultaneously astounded and unnerved. They would be even more baffled today if they realised how far the making of robots exhibiting artificial intelligence (AI) has come since then.
AI is evolving at a rapid pace, while the discourse surrounding it is unsettling. Even those who are generating the technology are worried about it. While its benefits are tremendous, this is a technology that may entail existential risks, according to its developers.
AI is a ground-breaking man-made technology. It simulates human intelligence on machines such as computers and smartphones. While we may not have been aware of its existence, AI has in fact been around for several decades. However, it is only in the last few years that it has become mainstream.
The advantages of AI technology are profound and could revolutionise the world as we know it. Its applications address all spheres of life, and today AI is used in self-driving cars, in search engines such as Google, in voice-controlled technology such as Siri and Alexa, and in streaming services such as Netflix. It is used in smartphones, email, and social media. These are a mere handful of examples of how AI has changed our lives.
Automation using AI now exists in almost every field. It can replicate human actions without getting bored or tired and can perform menial or mundane tasks that human beings dislike such as wrapping, sorting, lifting, carrying, and packaging products.
At a different level altogether, AI has also made leaps and bounds in the medical field. It has allowed a previously paralysed man to walk through a device reconnecting his brain with his muscles. The late British physicist Stephen Hawking used AI to communicate, despite his debilitating disease.
Other AI devices can help in the early diagnosis of diseases, helping to lessen their burden. One article published on the database PubMed Central called “Artificial intelligence in Drug Discovery and Development” discusses how “biologists believe they can use AI to simulate the potential effects of new drugs without putting patients at risk. They can achieve this by testing thousands of ingredient variations in a biological simulator in the hope of one day designing drugs like engineers design planes.”
However, despite these benefits there are also real fears about AI. Workers across the globe worry that their jobs may disappear as robots replace them or make them redundant due to their ability to perform many tasks. Robots can carry out human tasks in hospitals, warehouses, factories, and schools without tiring or needing breaks or time off. They can also be used to build sophisticated machinery that could be used in all the above facilities. They could render humans purposeless.
Britain has already seen strikes from railway workers, healthcare staff, airport staff, teachers, and many others who fear that automation will see them being replaced by machines. The current Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild strikes in Hollywood in the US are also about automation. Members of both Guilds want to prevent AI from replacing their jobs, whether in writing scripts or appearing as background actors.
Workers at the British Columbia Ports Union in Canada are also on strike, leaving all 30 ports in the state in limbo and causing huge delays in the movement of cargo across the country. One of the union’s demands is a curb on the level of automation applied at the ports and limits on AI usage in maritime entryways.
The misuse of AI technology is a clear and present danger. One fake AI-generated image recently showed an explosion near the Pentagon in Washington and was shared on social media by thousands. It caused confusion and a dip in US stock markets. The consequences of similar disinformation could be devastating.
AI may also be a more direct threat to humanity, as technical experts in the field are worried that AI applications may eventually outwit humans. CEO of Open AI Sam Altman has said that he is a “little bit scared” of AI and worried about authoritarian governments developing the technology. Russian President Vladimir Putin also once said that whoever becomes the leader of AI technology will be “the ruler of the world.”
Other experts are also worried and have called for a slowdown in the development of AI. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that AI represents “the biggest risks to civilisation.” Geoffrey Hinton, named the “godfather of AI,” left Google when he realised that the dangers from it were real, while former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has warned that AI poses “existential risks.”
It is very likely that AI will one day outsmart humans, a petrifying thought. Researchers at Cornell University in the US have highlighted examples where AI has already done so. In one example, a robot was challenged to walk without having its feet touching the ground an impossible feat for humans. The robot “flipped itself onto its back and then proceeded to walk on its elbows, feet happily floating above its head,” the researchers said, proving that it can think differently and do what a human could never do.
Should we continue to develop AI despite the unease that comes with it? Can the world continue to benefit from AI without risking existential harm? In an open letter, the Future of Life Institute, an NGO, asked the following even more worrying questions: “Should we automate away all the jobs, including the fulfilling ones? Should we develop non-human minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart… and replace us? Should we risk loss of control of our civilisation?”
The answer to these questions is that AI must be managed and regulated today so that catastrophes do not happen tomorrow. Governments must make sure that the technology is not misused by introducing appropriate controls and supervision. It is the only way out of this challenging situation.
The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly