Feeling concerned about artificial intelligence? So is self-proclaimed luddite Daniel Smith. But, he writes, he’s now learning to love AI rather than worry about it. 

I tend to walk around with a general distrust of technology. 

It makes me feel mildly annoyed most days, and sometimes turns to open hatred when I lose at chess to my phone.

But with the advent of AI, a general sense of fearing for my life has also entered the mix. I have seen enough movies to know how this ends.

Until recently, computers relied on humans to give them instructions. But now machine learning has moved beyond human direction. Computers and digital systems can now create their own instructions to follow.

The most common example of this artificial intelligence is Chat GPT, which uses an understanding of language commands and access to (almost) the entire internet to give answers to any question, from “Please explain Newtonian algebra in 35 words” to “Should I get a doctor to look at this weird lump on my ass?”

The potential to change lives for the better?

Some experts believe machine intelligence is on the brink of surpassing human intelligence to such an extent that it will leave us looking like Golden Retrievers in comparison to our new AI overlords.

Dr Jonnie Penn, Professor of AI Ethics and Society at the University of Cambridge, says he wouldn’t mind if this happened as he often feels like a Golden Retriever anyway.

The best selling author was somewhat retriever-like in his athletic movements, his kind face and enthusiasm while speaking at Spark Lab’s Future State conference last week. 

Penn doesn’t agree with the idea that AI will usher in a dawn of new robot overlords. Instead, he thinks it has the potential to change our lives for the better.

Jonnie Penn speaking at Future State 2023

“There is an opportunity here to match technological innovation with social innovation,” he told attendees at Future State.

“In the same way that the industrial revolution helped to formalise the existence of ‘the weekend’, we should start to think about these things as tools we can engineer our societies with.”

Having AI do almost all of our work could mean many things: a longer weekend, more time to relax, a new appreciation for community and family interactions previously dictated by “work”. 

It is a fairly rosy view of the future that Penn thinks is fully possible

Unfortunately, there is a big BUT

For us to achieve this positive outcome, the current path our AI development is on needs to shift drastically, as it’s unsustainable, and just kind of …stupid.

“The current idea for AI is completely maximalist. We want it everywhere, and we talk about it like it is the next oil. I think we are going to look back on that view in a few years as extremely antiquated,” Penn says.

“The environment can’t stomach it, the people can’t stomach it, and it’s actually not the best use for AI.”

More than robot overlords, environmental impacts are the dirty little secret of the AI world, Penn says.

While a round trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits 900kg of carbon, training an AI search engine emits 284,019kg of carbon into the atmosphere.

“The machine learning industry has a carbon footprint tantamount to the entire airline industry, and these are early days,” Penn says.

“To think that amidst this climate insecurity, we would introduce these things into our lives seems like a ticking time bomb.”

How much digital is enough?

We as a society need to ask ourselves “how much digital is enough” and use that as a clear metric to set limits on our development and implementation of AI, Penn says.

He proposes an approach he calls “rest engineering”. Like a piece of music that has rests between notes that uplift the piece as a whole, society should also choose to “rest” itself from certain elements of AI.

“We forfeit so much to the idea that the future must be digital. I don’t think the climate will take that, I don’t think people will take that. If you want to be on the bleeding edge of tomorrow you need to pull back.”

This is not the first time a man on a stage has said we need to pause AI for the good of society (ahem, thanks Elon Musk).

Jonnie Penn speaks at Future State 2023

But while Musk’s alarmist call to arms only asked for a pause on AI development for six months, Penn wants to see certain boundaries set dictating the entire direction of AI’s future development.

While this decision is likely not one of life and death for the human race, it is something that might dictate if our AI tools add a positive aspect to our life, or make it a bit more shit.

“I don’t want to downplay the difficulties of finding a solution. But I think if we start small, and be serious, then that is actually a strong place to start.”

This content was sponsored by Spark Lab. Spark Lab and Semi Permanent recently presented their first Future State event, a one-day series of talks from innovators at world-changing companies. You can find more speaker content from the event at the Spark Lab website

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