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Google DeepMind’s kill switch research may ease A.I. fears

Sharon Gaudin | June 8, 2016
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With so many people taking their cues from the movies on what a future with artificial intelligence will look like, some who fear one day having robotic overlords will be heartened by research that Google is doing.

Google DeepMind, a London-based artificial intelligence company that Google acquired in 2014, is working on what will be a kill switch for robots and other A.I. systems.

The idea is that one day a smart machine might be able to override its own off button. If that’s the case, then humans would need another way to gain the upper hand.

“If an agent is operating in real-time under human supervision, now and then it may be necessary for a human operator to press the big red button to prevent the agent from continuing a harmful sequence of actions -- harmful either for the agent or for the environment,” researchers wrote in a paper posted on the Machine Intelligence Research Institute website. “However, if the learning agent… learns in the long run to avoid such interruptions, for example by disabling the red button, it is an undesirable outcome.”

The paper was co-written by Laurent Orseau, a research scientist with Google Deep Mind, and Stuart Armstrong, a researcher with the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

The researchers are looking for ways to keep a machine from learning about human interventions and stopping them from happening.

It’s an interesting, and possibly critical, step for researchers to take given the popular fears surrounding artificial intelligence.

With many getting their ideas for a robotic future from movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, I, Robot and the TV show Battlestar Galactica, some envision a future where the machines are in charge and people are their slaves.

It’s not a pretty picture and it has many people, even high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk and renowned physicist Steven Hawking, anxious about what awaits humans in a future where smart machines are increasingly involved in people’s lives.

Hawking went so far as to say, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

Google’s kill switch research is more than technology to placate the frightened masses, but may also be well-timed.

“The timing is right for this to be discussed as the architectures for A.I. and autonomous machines are being laid right now,” said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. “It would be like designing a car and only afterwards creating the ABS and braking system. The kill switch needs to be designed into the overall system. Otherwise, it is open to security issues and maybe even the machines trying to circumvent the kill.”


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