AI – technology’s next frontier

Many of the conversations that are taking place around artificial intelligence (AI) are forward looking. The narrative is often about what AI will be able to do for us in the future, not what is happening right now.

But Amy Webb, a best-selling author, a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and the Founder of the Future Today Institute, says that AI is the most important technology development in our lifetimes, and major milestones are already being realised.

Webb recently launched a new book named: THE BIG NINE: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp, which looks at how we can we steer the evolution of AI towards a better future instead of abdicating to geopolitical and market forces.

The world’s largest nine technology companies are hugely powerful, and made up by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple in the United States and Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent in China.

We often think about how AI will be able to help us as consumers, but Webb says that their first priority is to leverage AI for corporate gain.

“I believe that these companies have been developing AI ecosystems to benefit their profits internally,” she comments. “For example, Amazon has to create efficiencies for its AWS platform, so one of the reasons it is looking so intently at machine learning is to make its own internal processes much more effective and to create new revenue. So, in some ways, these companies are their own biggest customers. I think that is the primary focus for most of them.

“I would say beyond that, their goals are to create mutual products and services that customers find incredibly useful. The third reason is that AI is the next era of computing so I would assume that these nine companies want to be at the forefront of what’s next.”

In the book, Webb outlines three future scenarios for AI from optimistic, pragmatic and catastrophic, which will reveal both opportunity and risk as we advance from artificial narrow intelligence, to artificial general intelligence to artificial superintelligence.

The most positive scenarios see AI used for public good, but Webb says that even this possibility would not be “utopia”.

“It’s about making the best possible decisions that we could. Some of the outcomes include interoperability, so we incentivised the six U.S. companies to collaborate and standardise some of the frameworks and make what they’re doing transparent.

“This was done in a way that didn’t compromise IP, but the transparency made it much easier to decide how decisions were being made. One of the big problems currently is that regulators don’t understand how decisions are being made in the EU and the United States. In the optimistic framing, we solved some of those problems by making the decision more transparent.

“There is also the founding of the ‘Google Alliance’, which is an international standardisation across the planet around how AI is defined and used and how it is progressing. It performs audits and testing. There is still tension and problems but we prioritise safety over speed.”

Amy Webb, a best-selling author, a professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business and the Founder of the Future Today Institute

The pragmatic and worse-case scenarios see the world’s largest technology companies ignore calls to use AI in the public interest, choosing instead to use it to boost their profits and satisfy their shareholders on Wall Street.

The pragmatic scenario sees large organisations run by Chief AI Officers, companies having access to vast personal data banks and an AI collaboration between Apple and Amazon, known as Applezon.

The worse-case scenario is a bleak and dystopian one, with China digitally annexing the United States and controlling the majority of the world’s bank accounts, and in 50 years it effectively brings an era of democracy to an end when it uses AI to control the planet’s resources and wipe out any enemies.

It is a disturbing and provocative take on AI, but Webb says that China’s Big Three are part of a “well-capitalised, highly organised state-level AI plan for the future, one in which the government wields tremendous control”.

Webb has said previously: “This is China’s space race, and we are its Sputnik to their Apollo mission. We might have gotten into orbit first, but China has put its sovereign wealth fund, education system, citizens, and national pride on the line in its pursuit of AI.”

While it’s easy to be sceptical, Webb says there is no excuse for consumers to ignore the issue anymore, and that we have to think far more carefully about how our data is being used and harvested.

“It’s useful to think about the downstream implications for the future. If you’re not someone living in China you might not care so much about how data is being collected. On the other hand, there are far too many Chinese companies working in some way in AI and they have research labs working all over the world.

“Some are doing terrific work as are others, but they are also domiciling their data on Chinese cloud system and that data is accessible by the Chinese government. China is not transparent about how and why they are using data.”

Back in the United States, Webb believes that the relationship between its tech giants and Capitol Hill needs to be strengthened and refined.

“How can governments be an effective watchdog to ensure AI is being used for good?” she asks. “It depends how you define good because it is being used for good at the moment but there are also some negative consequences. At the moment, our big tech companies in some ways have as much power as our governments do, just in different ways.

“The challenge is that outside of China and Russia they can have an adversarial and disruptive relationship with governments and there aren’t solid relationships. So, collaboration is important going forward and governments have to recognise that they can’t operate without big tech, and tech has to recognise that it is going to get regulated.

“They are operating like a nexus of power and in reality, they are in a codependent relationship and in many ways, they depend on each other but they think they are the singular authority, but they are not.”

Addressing the disparity that the book explores between the perception and reality of AI, Webb reiterates that a step-change in thinking needs to happen: “The most critical thing is to get away from abstraction. We get into trouble when we look to pop culture instead of diving in and understanding what AI actually is and what it does. It isn’t a singular thing, it is an umbrella term for many more things. It can be fun to think about the sci-fi stuff but it’s more important that we get familiar with the boring stuff first.”


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