The resistible rise of Artificial Intelligence?

I spent a glorious weekend last week in Oxford at the Oxford University Alumni Weekend, meeting friends and enjoying stimulating lectures and discussions. One of these, led in the lovely lecture theatre at St Anne’s College by Professor Peter Jeavons, Head of the Computing Science department, prompted me to rush to put virtual pen to virtual paper, so energised was I by the thoughts that flooded through my brain …

The simple answer to the question posed in the title of the lecture, which took us through the history of artificial intelligence and clarified what artificial intelligence actually is (less Terminator), and more ‘machines acting rationally’ is that this is not the question we should be asking … the question of whether the rise of AI is resistible or not lies, in fact, entirely within our human capacity. If anything, however, according to philosopher Daniel C Dennett, “the real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded [by people] authority far beyond their competence”.

Not that there is much danger at all, according to Professor Jeavons, if we grapple properly and effectively with the kinds of questions that he wants to answer on behalf of his new students, as he prepares them to learn what they will need in order to contribute their skills effectively to the world of research and practical application of AI in the future. His core question was not what COULD go into AI development, but what SHOULD go into it … what decisions are we going to take, as humanity, that will enable us to guide the development of AI? He extended this into 3 other questions:

  • What roles in society can be taken by machines without compromising human dignity, and what roles must be reserved for humans?
  • How do we organise an economy which has less and less need for labour, either by hand or by brain?
  • What are the problems we really want smart machines to solve?

These questions will not answer themselves, nor should we allow them to be answered by individuals (even on behalf of institutions or governments); they are FAR too important for that. We need philosophers, ethicists, users, thinkers; we need diversity and creativity of perception and thought, and we need people to challenge, test, explore, discover and contribute to an understanding and direction. The thought did cross my mind during the lecture that we have a beautiful natural and international structure already in place to do this, through our governmental systems, if only we could reorientate them towards reflection and collaborative construction of ideas and practice, and away from the kneejerk, populist, soundbite culture which, bewilderingly, seems to mark our political status quo.

And of course, we have an even more beautiful opportunity to shape the future if we really focus on enabling our young people to develop the cognitive, emotional and social skills to be able to address these issues, to learn how to turn our existing decision-making structures to good and practical use, and to invent new means of identifying and exploring the answers to these questions. I do wonder whether our existing curriculum structures truly enable these … in fact, I am certain that they could do much more if teachers were released and allowed to flex their muscles, in pursuit of developing the strengths in every child.

A plea to policymakers … Please, please, can we trust teachers and let them do this …? The future is in their hands.

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