In the last several months, top tech heavyweights including Bill Gates and Elon Musk and renowned physicist Stephen Hawking warned of threats artificial intelligence (AI) could pose. Along with a collection of intellectuals who signed a Future of Life Institute letter in January, the three leading innovators support development of AI to benefit society, but are wary of the potential dangers.
"They said this is one of the largest existential threats facing humanity. They worry that you're going to have robots that are more intelligent than humans, that will have their own volition and that will have hugely negative effects on society," CBS News contributor and NewYorker.com editor Nicholas Thompson said Monday on "CBS This Morning."
Robots like HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" and Chappie from the recently released sci-fi film of the same name, employ their underestimated sentient capabilities to cause problems for their human counterparts -- Hollywood fantasies spurring real-life concerns.
"The larger, long-term concern is that humanity will be shunted aside and that's what people think about, but they can't really conceptualize and can't really see exactly what's happening, but that's where angst comes from," Thompson said.
Robots outside the big screen are not yet as sophisticated, but engineers are making big strides.
Engineers at DeepMind, a British start-up acquired by Google, recently pitted its creation in an Atari-style battle of the minds against a human competitor -- and won.
"It can't master Halo, but it can do the earlier video games," Thompson said.
While the computer's game-playing success came from self-taught techniques, Demis Hassabis, AI intelligence researcher at DeepMind, said at a news conference in February: "We are decades away from any technology we need to worry about."
Thompson would agree.
"It's so far down the line, I don't think we can think about it logically right now," he said.
Thompson did describe a not-so-far-fetched affect of intelligent robots -- the impact on the job market.
"There will be big job problems. There will be a lot of people who will lose their jobs, who will be displaced. That's serious. That's something we're going to have to deal with," Thompson said.
Instead of worrying about futuristic calamities, he believes scientists and engineers should direct their attention toward practical benefits for humans and minimize robots' disruptive capabilities.
"We should be thinking about how we can integrate robots into our society in a way that makes the world more productive, more just, more moral, helps people in hospitals, and to the extent it displaces people, we figure out ways to help them get new jobs," Thompson said. "That's the problem we have to deal with right now."
Films like "WALL-E" and "Big Hero 6" depict such possibilities -- from machines with an eye for the environment to portable health care bots.
"I think it's the medical ability, the ability for a robot to really take care of people, to take care of end-of-life, that which we're seeing a lot more of in Japan," Thompson said. "That's a real issue in society as we get older, 'How are you going to have enough health care workers to make the last year of life fulfilling and calm and beneficial?"
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