David W. Buchanan: No, the Robots Are Not Going to Rise Up and Kill You

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David W. Buchanan is a researcher at IBM, where he is a member of the team that made the Watson “Jeopardy!” system.

David W. Buchanan writes: We have seen astonishing progress in artificial intelligence, and technology companies are pouring money into AI research. In 2011, the IBM system Watson competed on “Jeopardy!,” beating the best human playersSiri and Cortana have taken charge of our smartphones. As I write this, a vacuum called Roomba is cleaning my house on its own, using what the box calls “robot intelligence.” It is easy to feel like the world is on the verge of being taken over by computers, and the news media have indulged such fears with frequent coverage of the supposed dangers of AI.

But as a researcher who works on modern, industrial AI, let me offer a personal perspective to explain why I’m not afraid.

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Science fiction is partly responsible for these fears. A common trope works as follows: Step 1: Humans create AI to perform some unpleasant or difficult task. Step 2: The AI becomes conscious. Step 3: The AI decides to kill us all. As science fiction, such stories can be great fun. As science fact, the narrative is suspect, especially around Step 2, which assumes that by synthesizing intelligence, we will somehow automatically, or accidentally, create consciousness. I call this the consciousness fallacy. It seems plausible at first, but the evidence doesn’t support it. And if it is false, it means we should look at AI very differently.

Intelligence is the ability to analyze the world and reason about it in a way that enables more effective action. Our scientific understanding of intelligence is relatively advanced. There is still an enormous amount of work to do before we can create comprehensive, human-caliber intelligence. But our understanding is viable in the sense that there are real businesses that make money by creating AI.

Coming online: some 95,000 new professional service robots, worth some $17.1bn, are set to be installed for professional use between 2013 and 2015

Coming online: some 95,000 new professional service robots, worth some $17.1bn, are set to be installed for professional use between 2013 and 2015

Consciousness is a much different story, perhaps because there is less money in it. Consciousness is also a harder problem: While most of us would agree that we know consciousness when we see it, scientists can’t really agree on a rigorous definition, let alone a research program that would uncover its basic mechanisms. Read the rest of this entry »