AI Armageddon only if we let it

Concerns that intelligent robots will take over will only come to pass if humans are
dumb enough to make them artificial humans with all our darker traits...

David Tortorano
February 2018

PENSACOLA, Fla. - It’s a vision of the future that is about as dark as one can
imagine. Intelligent, autonomous robots on land, sea and air are no longer under
human control and decide on their own what to target with their weapons. These
machines, or so the apocalyptic vision goes, are smarter, stronger, in every way
superior to their creators – and they’re taking over.

Think HAL of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” disobeying humans in order to survive, or
perhaps the cyborgs in “The Terminator,” intent on destroying the human resistance.

That vision or a variant is embraced by some well-known people. Elon Musk, the
head of SpaceX, has called artificial intelligence probably humanity’s “biggest
existential threat.” Physicist Stephen Hawking holds that while development of
artificial intelligence could be the biggest event in human history, “unfortunately, it
might also be the last.”

Musk, Hawking and hundreds of artificial intelligence researchers and experts have
called for a worldwide ban on autonomous weapons – those with humans out of the
loop – warning that it could set off a revolution in weaponry.

But Dr. Ken Ford, founder and CEO of the Florida Institute for Human and Machine
Cognition in Pensacola, sees it differently. AI is not inherently a danger to humanity.
Yes, our worst fears could come to pass, but only if we create robots in our own
image, including our darker traits.

Ford received his Ph.D. in computer science from Tulane University. In 2015, the
Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence named him the recipient of
the 2015 Distinguished Service Award. The same year Ford was elected as Fellow of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2017  Ford was
inducted into the Florida Inventors Hall of Fame.

Author of hundreds of scientific papers and six books. Ford’s research interests
include AI, human-centered computing, and human performance and resilience.

IHMC, which is well-known on the international stage, has created wearable
exoskeletons that improve performance of the human body, like the Mina v2, which
placed second in the first Cybathlon in Switzerland in October 2016 against global
competition. It also created an algorithm that allowed the robot Atlas to perform life-
saving skills during disasters. That effort won for IHMC second place in an
international DARPA competition in 2015.

Ford made clear from the start the reason for his Jan. 31 lecture at IHMC in
downtown Pensacola.

“After decades of pundits and philosophers arguing that AI is provably impossible,
suddenly that argument has been replaced with the assertion that not only is it
possible, but that superhuman AI represents the greatest danger ever faced by the
human race. So in only about a decade it went from you can’t do it … to you shouldn’
t do it,” he said.

“My purpose of this talk will be to draw our attention to an interesting historical
parallel. Another older technology, which was also controversial and thought to be
impossible, and then deemed to be a great danger to the human race – that is
artificial flight.”

As he put it, “the parallel between AI and AF is illuminating.”

Ford’s talk was something of a history lesson about mankind’s fascination with flying.
Originally thought to be impossible, it was later deemed dangerous on a spiritual
level – if God meant for man to fly he would have given him wings. From that it turned
to concerns that it was dangerous to people on the ground.

“Flight has always been one of humanity’s oldest dreams,” he said, and the world’s
best thinkers tried to come up with answers for one of the mankind’s “big ideas.”

In the quest, artificial flight from the beginning sought to imitate birds, including the
vigorous flapping wings, donning feathers and even a beak. The goal, he said,
seemed to be creating an “artificial bird.”

It wasn’t until humanity started understanding the science of flight – like the role of air
flow and lift – that flight finally became possible. The Wright brothers were not trying
to mimic birds, but focused on lift, stability and the dynamics of turning in the air.

Once it was possible to fly, some sought to ban the practice through legislation. It
was only over a matter of time that those concerns faded.

Like early flyers trying to imitate birds, AI for a long time tried to imitate humans. Ford
said creating a machine that can do human feats is misdirected. He’s averse to
technology that is done simply because it can be done.

Books and movies have provided us with the idea that artificial intelligence can be
hazardous to humans. Ford said the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” shaped our
thoughts. The computer HAL was all too human and went mad when humans tried to
shut him down.

But in fact, the current application of AI is nothing like this sci-fi version, and we live
with it on a daily basis. It’s all around us, including our vehicles and phones, and in all
cases it’s designed to make our tools a little smarter, Ford said.

Any really remarkable technology is often perceived as morally bankrupt and
dangerous. But technology is neutral and doesn’t convey any inherent moral
component, Ford said.

But there’s the caveat. Humans are capable of a lot of things, and technology can be
used for good or ill.

“Whether we will as a species wisely apply our technology, that is very much in
question,” Ford said.

“It’s up to us, but we should not imagine that our salvation from malevolent machines
will be brought to us by our state legislators drafting laws to regulate their behavior,”
Ford said, or that some kind of knowledge should be forbidden fruit of the human
brain. “We have already bitten from this apple.”

A little more than a week after Ford’s lecture, another speaker at IHMC discussed
how research has led to technologies we now take for granted.

Dr. Richard McCullough said scientific discoveries over the past 30 years are now
leading to revolutionary new consumer products that will improve mankind’s future.
He said plastics that are lights and energy producing materials will significantly
reduce energy consumption and lead to zero energy buildings in the future.

The printing of metals and other electronic materials in two and three dimensions are
already impacting robotics.

McCullough is a professor of materials science and engineering and has been vice
provost for research at Harvard University since 2012. Previously he was vice
president for research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. McCullough
founded Liquid X Printed Metals and Plextronics.

He showed how seemingly esoteric research can later lead to products we all use.
We’ve already seen it, and will continue to see it in the future.

“We’re going to have the bendable future,” he said about research that has led to
plastics that can conduct electricity.

“Your cell phone might be a piece of plastic … your newspaper may be just a piece
of rolled-up plastic that you pull out or pull down … and then it would download from
the internet the newspaper of the day just like it does on your cell phone.”

He envisioned the military using lightweight plastic maps on which they can download
coordinates of the enemy.

“So this is the future, the bendable, plastic future – throw away electronics that are
completely printed. We’re not there yet, but these are real prototypes that have been

In the near future, lighting will be replaced by printed plastic lighting that can be used
in a way only limited by the imagination. Some of the products being developed
include window that you can look through in the daytime and at night can be turned
on and become lights. None of this is far away, he said.

“It’s pretty cool stuff,” he said, including the possibility of painting a roof on a house
that can generate electricity.

“If you can print electronics, imagine what you can do with robotics in the future,” he
said. Robots can be printed and integrated with the electronics in them.

“This is a brave new world with a lot of really cool things going on,” he said.
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