AbilityNet has long been a champion of the potential for the next generation of tech to transform the lives of disabled people, from autonomous cars and virtual assistants to computers you can control with your brain, but many people think that rosy future is tinged with dark storm clouds.
"The rise of powerful Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which," said Prof Hawking at the recent launch of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University. So how worried should we be?
Two years of warning that AI could destroy humanity
Two years ago notable figures in the science and tech worlds including Professor Hawking, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak all expressed their concerns about AI and the potential for where the technology might lead - though Professor Hawking's was the most apocalyptic vision of a world where robots decide they don't need us any more.
In an article for the BBC at the time Stephen Hawking outlined his concerns that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. The purpose of their warnings was for people to take this potential threat seriously and join the scientists and tech experts in exploring how to avoid such a cataclysmic future scenario.
Getting the best brains on the job to avoid an AI-annihilation
It looks like people were listening. This centre for the study of future AI at Cambridge University will get the best minds thinking about how to avoid an AI apocalypse. "I'm glad someone was listening," Professor Hawking said, when he gave a short speech that summarised the aims of the institute. See the full speech below.
He outlined the benefits and dangers of the technology and pointed to rapid progress in areas like self-driving cars and the triumph of Google's DeepMind in the game of Go against the reigning world champion.
Technology for good
Every year AbilityNet hosts an amazing event called the Tech for Good Awards which celebrates everything good about tech - how tech is helping businesses, communities, charities and individuals across all areas of society. This year's winners include a simple app to match local charities that need help with local businesses that have time or money to spare, an indoor navigation system to aid blind people in unfamiliar places and an app for sex workers to send out anonymous warnings to both the police and other workers in the area about violent or threatening individuals.
AbilityNet also has a website absolutely crammed with resources (you’re looking at it) all about how technology is able to help people overcome challenges they may have.
Now it might be that our firm conviction that technology is a powerful force for good in the world is colouring our perception of the future. When Professor Hawking said, "I believe there is no deep difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.
It therefore follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence — and exceed it" we at AbilityNet begin to imagine all the amazing things that could result from such artificial brains – from virtual assistants such as Siri that can take the heavy lifting out of everyday tasks to autonomous vehicles that can take me, as a blind person, wherever I need to go.
An AI Future to help people with disabilities
The power of AI to assist people with disabilities in particular is enormous. It promises quicker and more natural access to info and functionality that would take a lot longer for people with sensory or physical disabilities and provides support for people with learning difficulties who otherwise would need human assistance.
We can also foresee the emergence of AI-based doctors or specialists making expert diagnoses to help alleviate or avoid impairment, AI-driven robot surgeons and carers who don't get tired or make mistakes and deep-learning algorithms crunching big data to progress medical research into diseases and disability.
And then there is the potential for AI to provide company and support for people with autism, dementia or anyone who is socially isolated.
Tech with ethics
If we go back to that example of self-driving cars for a moment, we can already see where artificial intelligence has had to be programmed to make very real ethical decisions.
Where an autonomous car is faced with a crisis situation it must weigh up the consequences of its actions and, quite literally, decide upon the most ethical path. Where it must swerve to save its passengers it may be faced with the decision of whether to drive into a bus-stop with people waiting, or alternatively swerve the other way and hit a single person on the other side of the street.
Some instances are even more nuanced. Does the car gage the worth of a child as being more than an old person? Are two children and a mother ‘worth’ more than four middle-aged men?
These eventualities may seem far-fetched but they have already had to be pre-programmed into the self-driving software of cars in case they ever materialise.
Cautiously optimistic for the AI future
So we can see that it is possible to impose our ethical values on tech. We hope that the future of AI will incorporate that approach and, unless and until we are sure that the artificial brains that we are developing can truly know right from wrong, let’s not put them in charge of such delicate capabilities as nuclear missiles (War Games anyone?), vital infrastructure such as power and water, or indeed their own on/off switch.
Professor Hawking said that AI has the potential to lead to the eradication of disease and poverty and the conquest of climate change. But could also bring us all sorts of things we weren’t bargaining on such as autonomous weapons, economic disruption and machines that develop a will of their own in conflict with ours.
At AbilityNet we’ll be bringing you all the latest developments in this area, but we’re hopeful that the right minds can continue to make technology a powerful force for good in the world. We wish all the boffins at the Centre for the Future of Intelligence the very best of luck with their mission.
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