President Obama has weighed in on the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and the mix of threats and opportunities it poses to humanity, acknowledging that the technology could be used to bring down financial markets or start a nuclear war.
“If you’ve got a computer that can play Go, a pretty complicated game with a lot of variations, developing an algorithm that lets you maximise profits on the New York Stock Exchange is probably within sight,” he said.
However, he added that this creates the potential for major problems. "If one person or organisation got there first they could bring down the stock market pretty quickly, or at least they could raise questions about the integrity of the financial markets,” he said.
“Then there could be an algorithm that said: 'Go penetrate the nuclear codes and figure out how to launch some missiles.' If that’s its only job, if it’s self-teaching and it’s just a really effective algorithm, you’ve got problems.”
Obama urged the nation’s security teams to make systems secure, rather than worry about the longer-term possibility of AI taking over the world.
“I think my directive to my national security team is: don’t worry as much yet about machines taking over the world. Worry about the capacity of non-state actors or hostile actors to penetrate systems, and in that sense it is not conceptually different than a lot of the cyber security work we’re doing," he said.
The future of work
Obama remains optimistic that AI can be a force for good in the future and that, while it may make some low-skilled jobs redundant, he is confident that new jobs will spring up to replace them.
“I tend to be on the optimistic side. Historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, and people find that new jobs are created, they migrate, and our standards of living generally go up,” he said.
However, Obama admitted that this generally favours the high-skilled, highly paid members of society, rather than those in lower-income roles, and that this could be a major challenge in the future.
“Low-wage, low-skill individuals become more and more redundant, and their jobs may not be replaced, but wages are suppressed. And if we are going to successfully manage this transition, we are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this," he said.
"How are we training and ensuring the economy is inclusive if, in fact, we are producing more than ever, but more and more of it is going to a small group at the top?
"How do we make sure that folks have a living income? And what does this mean in terms of us supporting things like the arts or culture or making sure our veterans are getting cared for? The social compact has to accommodate these new technologies, and our economic models have to accommodate them."
Obama is convinced that the US government will have to get more involved in the evolution of AI to ensure that all voices are heard in the creation of such systems, otherwise they will be too skewed towards the creators.
“Somebody reminded me that the space programme was half a per cent of GDP. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but in today’s dollars that would be $80bn that we would be spending annually on AI,” he said.
“Right now we’re spending probably less than $1bn. That undoubtedly will accelerate, but part of what we’re going to have to understand is that if we want the values of a diverse community represented in these breakthrough technologies, government funding has to be a part of it.
“And if government is not part of financing it, all these issues that Joi has raised about the values embedded in these technologies end up being potentially lost or at least not properly debated.”
Encryption and space travel
The interview also touched on other key technology issues, including encryption and regulating internet access.
"Figuring out how we regulate connectivity on the internet in a way that is accountable, transparent and safe, that allows us to get at the bad guys but ensures that the government does not possess so much power in all of our lives that it becomes a tool for oppression, we’re still working on that," he said.
"Some of this is a technological problem, encryption being a good example. I’ve met civil libertarians and national security people over and over and over again. And it’s actually a nutty problem, because no-one can give me a really good answer in terms of how we reconcile some of these issues."
Lastly, Obama admitted that space exploration remains "underfunded" by the government despite its huge potential.
"I’m still a big space guy, and figuring out how to move into the next generation of space travel is something that we’re significantly underfunding," he said.
"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.
"When we think about spaceflight, we’re still thinking about basically the same chemical reactions we were using in the Apollo flights. Fifty years later and it seems like we should - I don’t know if dilithium crystals are out there - but we should be getting some breakthroughs."
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