|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Building a Better Mouse Trap
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From: Ruben Safir
Subject: [NYLXS - HANGOUT] Building a Better Mouse Trap
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uly 26, 2009 Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man By JOHN
A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge
itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones,
which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to
a machine that can kill autonomously.
Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a
group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be
limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over
computer-based systems that carry a growing share of societyâs
workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.
Their concern is that further advances could create profound social
disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.
As examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as
diverse as experimental medical systems that interact with patients
to simulate empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy
extermination and could thus be said to have reached a âcockroachâ
stage of machine intelligence.
While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from
Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in â2001: A Space
Odyssey,â they said there was legitimate concern that technological
progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening
range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines
that increasingly copy human behaviors.
The researchers â leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence
researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference
Grounds on Monterey Bay in California â generally discounted the
possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea
that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet.
But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either
already here or will be soon.
They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals
could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were
developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system
that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial
intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from
The researchers also discussed possible threats to human jobs, like
self-driving cars, software-based personal assistants and service
robots in the home. Just last month, a service robot developed by
Willow Garage in Silicon Valley proved it could navigate the real
A report from the conference, which took place in private on Feb.
25, is to be issued later this year. Some attendees discussed the
meeting for the first time with other scientists this month and in
The conference was organized by the Association for the Advancement
of Artificial Intelligence, and in choosing Asilomar for the
discussions, the group purposefully evoked a landmark event in the
history of science. In 1975, the worldâs leading biologists also
met at Asilomar to discuss the new ability to reshape life by
swapping genetic material among organisms. Concerned about possible
biohazards and ethical questions, scientists had halted certain
experiments. The conference led to guidelines for recombinant DNA
research, enabling experimentation to continue.
The meeting on the future of artificial intelligence was organized
by Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft researcher who is now president of
Dr. Horvitz said he believed computer scientists must respond to
the notions of superintelligent machines and artificial intelligence
systems run amok.
The idea of an âintelligence explosionâ in which smart machines
would design even more intelligent machines was proposed by the
mathematician I. J. Good in 1965. Later, in lectures and science
fiction novels, the computer scientist Vernor Vinge popularized
the notion of a moment when humans will create smarter-than-human
machines, causing such rapid change that the âhuman era will be
ended.â He called this shift the Singularity.
This vision, embraced in movies and literature, is seen as plausible
and unnerving by some scientists like William Joy, co-founder of
Sun Microsystems. Other technologists, notably Raymond Kurzweil,
have extolled the coming of ultrasmart machines, saying they will
offer huge advances in life extension and wealth creation.
âSomething new has taken place in the past five to eight years,â
Dr. Horvitz said. âTechnologists are replacing religion, and their
ideas are resonating in some ways with the same idea of the Rapture.â
The Kurzweil version of technological utopia has captured imaginations
in Silicon Valley. This summer an organization called the Singularity
University began offering courses to prepare a âcadreâ to shape
the advances and help society cope with the ramifications.
âMy sense was that sooner or later we would have to make some sort
of statement or assessment, given the rising voice of the technorati
and people very concerned about the rise of intelligent machines,â
Dr. Horvitz said.
The A.A.A.I. report will try to assess the possibility of âthe loss
of human control of computer-based intelligences.â It will also
grapple, Dr. Horvitz said, with socioeconomic, legal and ethical
issues, as well as probable changes in human-computer relationships.
How would it be, for example, to relate to a machine that is as
intelligent as your spouse?
Dr. Horvitz said the panel was looking for ways to guide research
so that technology improved society rather than moved it toward a
technological catastrophe. Some research might, for instance, be
conducted in a high-security laboratory.
The meeting on artificial intelligence could be pivotal to the
future of the field. Paul Berg, who was the organizer of the 1975
Asilomar meeting and received a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1980,
said it was important for scientific communities to engage the
public before alarm and opposition becomes unshakable.
âIf you wait too long and the sides become entrenched like with
G.M.O.,â he said, referring to genetically modified foods, âthen
it is very difficult. Itâs too complex, and people talk right past
Tom Mitchell, a professor of artificial intelligence and machine
learning at Carnegie Mellon University, said the February meeting
had changed his thinking. âI went in very optimistic about the
future of A.I. and thinking that Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil were
far off in their predictions,â he said. But, he added, âThe meeting
made me want to be more outspoken about these issues and in particular
be outspoken about the vast amounts of data collected about our
Despite his concerns, Dr. Horvitz said he was hopeful that artificial
intelligence research would benefit humans, and perhaps even
compensate for human failings. He recently demonstrated a voice-based
system that he designed to ask patients about their symptoms and
to respond with empathy. When a mother said her child was having
diarrhea, the face on the screen said, âOh no, sorry to hear that.â
A physician told him afterward that it was wonderful that the system
responded to human emotion. âThatâs a great idea,â Dr. Horvitz said
he was told. âI have no time for that.â
Ken Conley/Willow Garage