‘If your robot beats you up it doesn’t matter to you if it’s conscious or not’

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Robots won’t wipe out mankind but AI will have increasingly radical implications for society in the decades to come, is the verdict of one well-known expert in the field.

Professor Martin McGinnity believes policy makers should ignore the ‘hype’ about an impending AI apocalypse.

He is convinced the AI revolution can be a force for good and can improve all our lives in many different ways.

But the robotics specialist thinks politicians should prepare for the labour displacement that will be an inevitable consequence of greater automation.

In a paper delivered at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Prof. McGinnity , who has had a long association with the School of Computing, Engineering and Intelligent Systems at Magee, outlined some of the challenges and opportunities presented by AI.

“Robotics and artificial intelligence have the potential to bring huge benefits to society: in health, in industry, in medicine, in education and in new knowledge.

“For example, the European Union €1 billion human brain project, which uses a lot of AI, is beginning to deliver results and this project aims to understand better how the brain processes information, how it processes information in both health and disease.

“This has a potential impact on a lot of the diseases which trouble us as a society: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, neurological disorders generally, neurodegeneration, major depressive disorder and so on.

“A lot of the breakthroughs that will come in that field will be due to artificial intelligence,” he said.

Robots, AI and automation thus can transform the world for the better. Conversely they will pose significant challenges, but one of these is not the dystopian ‘Terminator’ scenario where machines became all powerful.

Though some robots today perform narrow tasks better than humans the prospect of ‘artificial general intelligence’, where machines perform all task better than humans “is very, very far in the future, if at all.”

“A topic that is very prevalent in scientific novels, I suppose, is ‘the technological singularity’. This is essentially a hypothetical point of time in future at which we have an intelligence explosion, creating superintelligence, where each AI entity learns to learn, generating a runaway reaction such that each generation of AI entity is smarter than the previous one. This would be super intelligence. Some people say this is a hypothetical point but I would say it’s a mythical point for a whole range of reasons.

“There are other discussions. Is AI the problem or are robots the problem? Will robots take over and will they run our lives.

“In my view some of this debate is simply a distraction. In fact, an AI entity is always programmed to have goals and optimise its behaviour to achieve those goals.

“Intelligence begets control. We control animals, for example, because of our advanced intelligence. Robots are simply a physical embodiment of AI. You don’t actually need a physical entity to achieve control.

“And finally, if your robot beats you up it doesn’t actually matter to you whether its conscious or not, what’s important is, is what it does, not what it feels or what it believes.”

Notwithstanding his phlegmatic attitude to some of the gloomier AI forecasts, Prof. McGinnity does warn of disruption to the labour market. This, he says, must be planned for.

“There is no doubt that increased automation, increased AI, increased robotics, will lead to changes and the replacement of certain categories of occupations.

“These will mainly be in those occupations that are well defined, where the work is quite repetitive, possibly manual occupations but not exclusively. I would single out, for example, law and accountancy as two professional occupations where there is great scope for AI and automation.

“It’s important to note, however, as the OECD has pointed out, that automation transfers tasks not jobs and some jobs will, of course, evolve into new occupations that we can’t think of at this point in time.

“I would argue that the elimination of boring, tedius or dangerous occupations is actually a good thing provided, and this is a big proviso, society has put in place a comprehensive plan to support displaced workers.”