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Scientists say AI fears unfounded, could hinder tech advances

Sharon Gaudin | Jan. 30, 2015
Artificial intelligence research for at least the foreseeable future is going to help humans, not harm them.

Scientists at Stanford University have begun to explore what intelligent machines will mean for people's every day lives, as well as for the economy, in another 20, 50 or 100 years.

Sonia Chernova, an assistant professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said she doesn't see any foundation for the alarmist statements recently made about AI. However, she said scientists should discuss the effects that future advances in the technology could have on society.

"There are a lot of people thinking about this," Chernova said. "It's not like we're blindly forging ahead. We are taking this seriously but, at the same time, we don't feel there's any kind of imminent concern right now." She added that part of this fear of robotics appears to be a cultural issue.

"If I say something to an American about being a roboticist, they inevitably say, 'Oh, you're going to take over the world!' " said Chernova. "If I'm in Japan, I get a different response. They say, 'That's fantastic. You're helping people. I can't wait to have a robot helping around the house.' In the West, movies and video games — our culture — promote the idea that robots are dangerous."

Lynne Parker, a division director in Information and Intelligent Systems with the National Science Foundation, agreed that Americans and others in the West probably have a greater fear of robots because of movies like The Terminator and the TV show Battlestar Galactica.

"I think Hollywood has contributed to this," she said. "The Japanese society has embraced robots. They've really embraced it as a culture."

Parker was quick to point out that we are still far away from having any kind of intelligent machines that we need to fear.

"The robotics people know how far we are from getting anything that works reliably," she said. "It doesn't mean that technology developers don't have a responsibility to try to use these technologies in responsible ways. We need to have conversations about what to do with this. It's our responsibility."

With advances in AI research, a machine today can look at a picture and identify an object, such as a cat or a bottle. However, Parker noted that the machine still doesn't have any understanding of what a cat or a bottle is.

"For robots to become conscious of what they're doing and reason in a way to overcome us, that's really science fiction," she said. "Robotics is very far from having any consciousness and understanding of what it's doing, but we're still responsible to discuss the potential harm and see what we can do to mitigate it."

Etzioni said long-term attention to the future of AI is appropriate but he has concerns that headline-grabbing and fearful statements about the technology could slow research or the funding needed for research.


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