Robots Are Neither Out To Get Us Nor After Our Jobs.

Although there’s much about Artificial Intelligence (AI) “to be pessimistic about”, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt feels “obliged” to be an optimist. The Principal and Professorial Research Fellow in Computer Science at Jesus College, Oxford, and co-author of The Digital Ape, was speaking today with the journalist and broadcaster Phil Harding at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

“I think we have got to understand where the good can be found in these advances,” he explained. “Tim Bernard Lee often talks about when he’s berated by people who say: ‘You gave us this Web. It’s a terrible thing; it’s full of pornography, full of fake news.’ Well, it was a canvas on which human kind could write its story and develop itself, and there will always be light and shade on that canvas.”

One of the core ideas of The Digital Ape, which Shadbolt co-wrote with Roger Hampson, is a dismissal of the Terminator-styled “mad, bad and dangerous to know” robots which suddenly wake up and decide humans are surplus to requirements. “It’s not the Artificial Intelligence I fret about, it’s the Natural Stupidity,” he said. It’s the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and other “digital assistants” that we should be worrying about now. “There’s nobody at home inside those circuits, despite how they beguile you. But soon we’ll be putting that kind of technology into devices that will stay with us throughout our lives—the teddy bear powered by AI, recording every waking moment of a child. That raises ethical questions that are interesting. And who’s got all the information anyway? What are we going to do in a world where there are those concentrations of power?”

Shadbolt and Hampson were still writing the book when the news first broke of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. “People have become quite aware of the fact that lots of their data is collected, but the advantages these enormous amounts of data give to the companies are only now gradually being understood. The question we must ask is: ‘Is the deal a reasonable deal at this point? Is the balance of power between me as an individual and the big Corporates, or me and the Government, reasonable and fair and equitable?’ I argue quite strongly in the book: ‘No it isn’t.’ We need to start thinking about how we do make it more equitable, because those imbalance of resource and power generally lead to bad outcomes.”

As a researcher and “huge proponent” of AI, one thing Shadbolt has come to recognise is how we periodically worry about AI-driven robots becoming too powerful and putting us all out of a job. However, humans, he insists, “are extremely inventive in inventing things to do so that we are paid wages to buy the things that the robots produce.”

“There is no end to our inventiveness to decide that ‘this’ will be a new kind of profession,” he said. “Undoubtedly there’ll be dislocations; some jobs will be automated, but the fact is that humans will find their niche in the creative economy, the caring economy, the education economy and indeed productive and design economies.

“I’m not pessimistic in the way that some of these apocalyptic models are; in my own sphere, there are classes of job that were non-jobs just a decade ago,” he insisted. “Nobody’s mum was a Search Engine Optimisation Engineer.”

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