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Terrified of a future where machines rule? Here’s a more optimistic view

Oren Etzioni and Max Tegmark in the KUOW Green Room.
Oren Etzioni and Max Tegmark in the KUOW Green Room.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk made headlines when he urged leaders to intervene in the quest for artificial intelligence, saying the technology “is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization.”

Musk painted a frightening picture of a future where an AI arms race could lead to apocalyptic outcomes for humanity. But KUOW’s Bill Radke recently talked with two AI experts who take a more optimistic view on the role intelligent machines can play in our future.

Oren Etzioni of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Max Tegmark, MIT physicist and author of "Life 3.0,” said that "The Terminator" movie is probably not a good imagining of what life with AI will actually look like.

“People are actually really afraid now, and I don’t think they should be,” Etzioni said.

“We really have to have more focus on the upside,” Tegmark said. “And have a conversation about what sort of future we’re excited about — that we want to aim for."

They both agree that weaponized AI could have devastating implications for humanity, especially in the hands of dictators. But Tegmark pointed out that biological weapons were a similar concern that were banned through intergovernmental cooperation.

He said AI’s risks can be managed, but the potential for improving lives is great — and people should be excited about that.

Etzioni said he’s focused on short-term questions about protecting human rights and ensuring that AI doesn’t undermine economies by eliminating jobs. But he said the upside to AI could be great — from helping to eradicate disease to drastically decreasing our staggering average of 40,000 annual highway deaths.

“The research shows that as many as 80 percent of these could be prevented if we used better technology — if we used AI in cars, to put it bluntly,” Etzioni said. “The question that I ask is not, 'Is AI going to drive us off a cliff?' It’s, 'How is AI going to prevent us in the near-term from going off a cliff? How is AI going to save our life?'”

Etzioni said we need to educate ourselves about the potential for machine learning and understand how computers work and what they’re capable of.

“If you can’t understand it, you’re shut out of the conversation,” he said.

Tegmark wants people to participate in a national discussion about the possibilities: “If we can get excited about a shared positive vision for the future, then we’re much more likely to get that future.”

Produced for the Web by Amy Rolph.

Year started with KUOW: 2012
Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012