Advances in modern computing technologies have created an explosion of major breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). The concept of super intelligent artificial beings can be originally traced back to antiquity, but has recently become a leading topic of discussion in public dialogue and mainstream media as AI technologies become increasingly integrated into our everyday lives. Popular shows, such as Westworld and Black Mirror, explore the ideas of consciousness in machines juxtaposed with human consciousness, and are often set in a grim and apocalyptic future. The existential threat of artificial super intelligence has become a popular topic of debate, with public figures such as Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk warning against the dangers of creating super intelligent AI systems.


In 1950, Alan Turing developed the Turing Test as a way of identifying machines that had intelligence indistinguishable from humans. His proposed test consists of text-only conversations between two participants. He argued that if a human participant is unable to tell the difference between communicating with a human versus a machine then that machine can be thought of as intelligent. His idea is masterfully captured in the show Westworld in a scene where an AI host named Angela asks,

Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”

It was also around the mid-1950s when modern AI research officially began, leading to the establishment of numerous AI research programs and institutions, with the purpose of creating general AI. However, researchers greatly under-estimated the difficulty of this task and instead developed simple rule-based AI that could only operate in extremely narrow domains. It wasn’t until the early 2000s when artificial neural network based AI gained traction, producing huge breakthroughs in computer vision, speech recognition, and natural language processing.

Almost all new AI technologies developed today (such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, Snapchat filters, Instagram filters, DeepMind’s AlphaGo, Netflix recommendations, Google Translate, Tesla’s self-driving cars) are powered by complex artificial neural networks. AI systems today are already starting to pass the Turing Test in certain domains, producing images and videos that are extremely difficult to distinguish real from fake. One of the concerns of AI technology is the automated generation of fake data and fake news, which could potentially mislead large populations of people.

Machine intelligence will inevitably advance, grow and re-place human intelligence, which has raised concern among many public figures and experts. Elon Musk believes that AI can be more dangerous than nuclear weapons and could potentially lead to human extinction if we are not careful. He has been an important advocate for the regulation of AI technologies. In February 2018, “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation” report was published by a group of leading AI researchers from various institutions including Stanford University, University of Oxford and OpenAI. The 101-paged report details potential malicious applications of AI technologies as well as interventions, potential solutions and areas for further research.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, recently released a 10 billion dollar contract, aptly named JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure), for the development of an AI cloud computing system for warfare. Tech giants such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Oracle were poised to compete against each other in a bidding war, winner-take-all. However, Google has now dropped out of the JEDI bidding war stating that “we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles”. Employees from Microsoft also released an open letter to protest the contract, stating that “Microsoft executives are on track to betray these [AI] principles in exchange for short-term profits”. The development and application of AI technologies is moving very quickly and will grow exponentially. A lack of proper ethical guidelines and regulations could spell disaster for humanity. If we are not careful with AI technology, we could one day find ourselves in a truly dystopic reality.

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Anthony Zhao

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