Will the robots take over?

An AI robot

Society has been transformed since the industrial revolution by the impact of science and technology. Wyre Forest U3A – which has a thriving Science and Technology in Society group-  recently devoted two meetings to researching the current and future impacts of computerisation and robots.

The development of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is allowing machines to carry out many functions which could previously be done only by human beings. This raises two serious but controversial concerns which are increasingly discussed in the media.

The first is the potential impact on employment. A recent analysis found that over one third of jobs in the UK are highly vulnerable to being replaced by machines over the next 10-20 years. This is especially true of low-skilled and routine jobs, but as AI progresses higher level jobs are also at risk. The impact of technology in the past has been primarily to destroy jobs in some sectors whilst new opportunities have opened up elsewhere – hence the shift from agricultural to manufacturing, and later from manufacturing to services. However, it may be different this time. As computers become more intelligent, the new jobs may be done by machines rather than people. In theory, this could all be a good thing, freeing humans for more creative activities; but only if we can devise ways of ensuring that everyone in society benefits, and avoid an impoverished underclass.

A quite different longer term danger arises from the prospect that AI will eventually develop superintelligent machines – with broad intellectual abilities exceeding those of humans. Estimates from experts working in the AI field suggest that this could happen within the next 30 years. Once such machines are developed, they would be capable of further improving their own capabilities, leading to the possibility of an “intelligence explosion”. Homo sapiens would then no longer be the dominant intelligence on planet Earth, and the consequences for us are very hard to predict, but look rather ominous. Stephen Hawking is amongst those who has warned of the danger here. It would be good to see the issue taken more seriously by governments, rather than dismissed as a science fiction scenario of “killer robots”.