Facebook had to shut down its Artificial Intelligence (AI) based chatbots ‘Bob’ and ‘Alice’ after these programs created their own language by rearranging English words into sentences and started conversing with each other.
They supposedly did so because of a programming ‘error’ that incentivised them to create a more efficient language for communication as they negotiated with each other over a trade involving balls, books and hats which were each assigned a certain value.
The bots, it seems, even exhibited brilliant negotiation skills, feigning interest in a product to mislead the other party. Many Hollywood blockbusters have been made, showing future worlds where robots with Artificial Intelligence have taken over, outwitting humans at every step.
While there are many votaries of artificial intelligence, there is also no dearth of contrarians, who believe the technology could overtake human intelligence with ease and probably take over soon enough.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk is among the leading entrepreneurs who believe AI has the potential to bring nightmarish possibilities of fiction to life. Musk has earlier said that AI was probably humanity’s “biggest existential threat” and that he was increasingly inclined to think there should be some national or international regulatory oversight — anathema to Silicon Valley — “to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish”.
Musk has said: “With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon.” The incident at Facebook offers reason to believe in what Musk and his ilk are saying. At the same time, the possibilities that artificial intelligence opens up before researchers is undeniably big.
Scientist Stephen Hawking has also expressed apprehension over the dangers of giving free rein to AI. Hawking has said that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of human race and he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.
AI is of particular interest to developed countries as it can reduce their dependence on labour. It can make production more efficient and improve quality of output. It can make scaling operations up or down easier and smarter.
Facebook founder and AI proponent Mark Zuckerberg has said that if one were to argue against AI, one would also be arguing against safer cars that are virtually accident proof and against being able to better diagnose diseases.
Of course, these are some of the positives that AI research and development promises to deliver. But it might be too big a risk to test the limits of AI across all fields. Unless due discretion is exercised, AI can have devastating effects and Musk may not be exaggerating when he says Zuckerberg’s understanding of the threat posed by AI is limited.
Although AI is currently a bigger worry for developed nations of the world, those on the path to such a status cannot be far behind in facing its threats. From the Indian perspective, the bigger worries for the common man may be rise in prices of onion and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) cylinders for now.
But the aim for a Digital India is also pushing many buttons for a future dependent too much on technology, for better or worse. With Aadhaar, India has already gone ahead with biometric identification of its citizens, a vast data which might eventually go into the care of ‘smart’ software packages.
Eventually, India too, might need to invest heavily in AI if it needs to remain competitive in the global market.
Even as the debate on whether AI is beneficial or harmful to people rages on in societies where they have become inevitable elements in efforts to make life easier, the dilemma that less developed countries are faced with is whether to follow the course developed nations are leading them on, or to tread a different path wherein more practical and less expensive solutions are searched for.