Positive potential of AI lies in human hands says Britain’s Astronomer Royal

Baron Rees of Ludlow. Photo credit: Vodafone Institute

Baron Martin Rees is a British cosmologist and astrophysicist, but believes that humanity’s focus should be at home rather than among the stars.

His latest book ‘On the Future’ takes on the not-inconsequential topic of the future of humanity. It’s a future he knows will be lived for most of us on Earth, despite recent plans to colonise Mars.

“It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems,” he said at the AI&I lecture organised by the Vodafone Institute, Vodafone’s European think tank. “There’s no planet B for ordinary risk-averse people.”

Baron Rees, who holds the title of Astronomer Royal (meaning he is technically a member of Britain’s Royal household), said that artificial intelligence (AI) is probably not yet as advanced as is sometimes portrayed.

“DeepMind’s amazing computer beat the world champion at Go having been given no more than the rules,” he said, “but robots are still clumsier than a child in moving pieces on a real chess board.”

However, the ‘brute force’ approach to solving problems that computers employ today using the speed of their processing power will eventually be replaced by more complex and sophisticated modes of reasoning.

That in turn will see AI used to make an increasing number of everyday decisions that are today taken by human beings, but Baron Rees feels it is important that humans retain authority over these decision making systems.

“When machines learn they have to learn from some large data set and if that’s a human generated data set it will have biases in,” he explained.

“But there’s a more serious problem than that which is that if we are going to be sent to prison, or recommended for an operation, or even denied credit [by an AI system], then we want to feel that we can be given reasons for this and can contest them if we want to.”

Robotics too is developing quickly and while that will fundamentally change the workforce, he feels it could also lead to more fulfilling jobs.

“The money earned by robots could generate huge wealth for an elite. To preserve a healthy society will require mass redistribution to ensure that everyone has at least a living wage. This shouldn’t be just a hand out but should be used to create and upgrade public service jobs where the human element is crucial,” he said.

He envisages a possible future where many more of us work in public services, ranging from teaching to caring, where the human touch is much more important than robotic efficiency.

Furthermore, he stressed that not all work sectors will be threatened by automation because science has not yet come up with a robot that can reliably and autonomously imitate the intricacies of human movement.

Yet his optimism for the potential of humanity is tinged with a heavy dose of realism. His lecture concluded with a warning about a growing gap, that is fuelled by ethical and political failures, between where humanity is and where it could be.

Using technology in a positive way that benefits the whole of humanity and the world we inhabit is the major challenge that Baron Rees sees for humanity’s future.

You can watch the whole lecture here: https://www.facebook.com/VodafoneInstitute/videos/262147231139950/

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