Artificial Intelligence needs to embed human values and relationships: Barack Obama

Specialised AI is what we have now, in self driving cars, chatbots, digital assistants, and search engines, but we might have general AI soon.


The editor in chief for Wired conducted a joint interview with the President of the United States, Barack Obama and MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. The interview is for the November 2016 issue of Wired, but a condensed version is available on the Wired website. The disruptive emergence of Artificial Intelligence, Space Travel and Star Trek were on the agenda.

 Artificial Intelligence needs to embed human values and relationships: Barack Obama

Obama holding up his BlackBerry

Artificial Intelligence has gone from science fiction to reality. There are two kinds of Artificial Intelligence, general AI and specialised AI. Specialised AI is what we have now, in self driving cars, chatbots, digital assistants, multimedia curation applications and search engines. Google is particularly active in AI research. At the October Hardware event, Google CEO Sundar Pichai proclaimed that we are on the verge of an AI revolution, after technology has gone through the phases of computing, Internet and mobile revolutions. General AI is still science fiction, something like SkyNet from The Terminator. However, the MIT Professor Joi Ito believes that a true general AI may become a reality in as little as ten years.

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Sundar Pichai at the Google October Hardware event

The problem is that machine intelligence is cold. When setting out to do a task, it does it and continuously gets better at doing it. It is not really invested in individuals, culture, relationships and values. One of the challenges for technology, according to Obama, is how to embed these values within our artificial intelligences. Humans have to take some hard decisions at times, whether to save many lives or themselves. The question is, can machines be trusted to make these choices?

How to embed human values in self driving cars?

How to embed human values in self driving cars?

Another ethical question raised is that even if machines could some day reduce the amount of human labour, and set up perfect autonomous systems around the world, do we even want to live in such a utopia. This would mean that the entire system is static, even humans function like machines. When all technological progress ends, there is no room for transformation. A part of what makes us human is how dynamic our lives are.

Ross can do the work of a team of legal assistants

Ross can do the work of a team of legal assistants

It is a messy transition from our current systems to where AI will eventually get us. The problem for governments is that they need to make regulations to ensure that the low income category of people are not adversely affected. AI taking over existing jobs is a very real threat. Ross, was the first AI employee hired by a law firm. Ross has cognitive abilities to co-relate facts, and the intelligence is not just based on indexing and tagging. Ross is based on the IBM Watson AI platform. It churns tens of thousands of legal documents to pull out information relevant to a case.

Star Trek The Original Series

The Diverse crew in the original Star Trek series

Obama admitted to being a Star Trek fan in the interview. He was engrossed in it as a kid, and the thing that attracted him to Star Trek the most was not the technology, but that the underlying human values were more important. Ito corroborated that the federation and the crew were very diverse, and represented a range of behaviors and viewpoints. Part of the challenge for technology is to work across cultural barriers and different value sets.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

The discussion also took a turn towards Space. Obama had recently written about the importance of a manned mission to Mars, and explored the possibility of permanent human settlements on other planets in the future. He had some encouraging words by the efforts of the private sector, which includes SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing. "There’s some good work being done by the private sector, because increasingly it has displaced government funding on some of the “What the heck, why not?” ventures, the crazy ideas." Obama said. That seems to be a shout out to the daring, ambitious and borderline impossible plans of Elon Musk to make human life interplanetary.

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