No, the Robots Are Not About to Rise Up and Destroy Us All

TOKYO - SEPTEMBER 07:  A TMSUK04 Robot, by one of Japan's leading robot developers tmsuk, leads a presentation at a press con
TOKYO - SEPTEMBER 07: A TMSUK04 Robot, by one of Japan's leading robot developers tmsuk, leads a presentation at a press conference on September 7, 2007 in Tokyo, Japan. Microsoft Robotics Studio and tmsuk have jointly announced their collaboration in robotics to share the same software platform to develop robots. The two developers will share the technical and operational merits. (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

Hollywood loves to give us stories of super-intelligent robots running wild with their orders. And we love to watch these stories. If artificial intelligence (AI) worked like it does in the popular imagination, a robot who was asked to dry up some spilled water not stop until all the world's oceans were dried up.

But as an AI researcher, I know that the reality is much more mundane. Human-level artificial intelligence -- also called artificial general intelligence -- will be created slowly, over a long period of time. And it is very, very unlikely that a robot would ever be smart enough to devise a way to dry the world's oceans without being smart enough to understand why that would be a problem.

The apocalyptic AI scenarios the media portrays are a hyperbolic misrepresentation of actual risks. Though it may seem that the need to control AI is upon us, in reality, scientists will tell you that a lot more research -- and many more steps -- are needed first.

Siri, Watson and Our Reptile Ancestors

Signs of AI's progress are around us all the time, and many of us interact with them in ways that make our daily lives easier. Siri (Apple's speech recognition tool), Watson (the question-answering computer) and self-driving cars, for example, are all signs of progress that show technology has reached the same level of complex behaviours found in our reptilian ancestors.

But smart-looking behaviour is not the same as general intelligence. What separates them is the human ability to dynamically imagine, reason and adapt -- to understand and respond to the environment, reason about the consequences of an action, interpret behaviour and imagine new possibilities. These dynamic responses -- the ability to learn, imagine and reason like a human -- are many years and fundamental discoveries away.

Building machines capable of human-like intelligence is a very long-term project that requires teams of scientists working for many years. The results will not happen all at once. Each of the steps toward creating AI are milestones in and of themselves, and since they have the potential to be both publically interesting and commercially valuable, it's likely they will be shared and celebrated.

A Robot to Treat Ebola or Deal With Nuclear Waste

Imagine, for example, the response to a robot capable of treating Ebola patients or cleaning up Nuclear waste at Fukushima. Not only are the humanitarian benefits intrinsically exciting, but the progress toward AI will be something publically shared, not hidden away.

Many doomsday predictions falsely project all sorts of problems with fully-fledged artificial intelligence making disastrous decisions. In reality, getting to the point where our computers operate according to common sense and expectation is exactly the kind of research challenge we must overcome before we get to even the first level of artificial intelligence.

Only when these problems are both understood and solved will AI become possible. The real concerns of those working on AGI are not, however, the overblown dramas the media presents.

Like every major technological advancement in human society, AI offers both risks and rewards. One practical example is the economic effect of robotic automation. Some economists argue for government-sponsored schemes to ease the transitions toward more automated manufacturing and transportation in order to soften the impact of displaced jobs. I agree with these ideas.

These possibilities drive the research at Vicarious and other AI labs toward further innovation while taking both the potential risks and benefits into careful consideration. Technology has the power to transform society. The most significant human innovations have rewritten our capacity to help and heal, but also come with necessary and important questions we must ask ourselves. Earlier in the year, we contributed to an open letter and research document on the focus areas that can be helpful along the path toward human-level AGI, from legal frameworks for autonomous vehicles to verification algorithms.

We are at an exciting time in technological advances. Superintelligent AGI has the capacity to solve many of the most significant problems facing humanity today, like addressing climate change or curing diseases. Media hype should not make us lose sight of human-level artificial intelligence's potential. More than any other invention that has come before it, AI has the capacity to help humanity thrive.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). The Forum's Technology Pioneers program recognizes young companies from around the world that are involved in the design, development and deployment of new technologies that have the potential of significantly impacting the way business and society operate. Read all the posts in the series here.

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