As in years past, artificial intelligence and its role in the era of big data and digitization again commanded conversation at the RSA Conference. The question now is whether it’s shaping up to be a boon or a bane.
In the exhibition hall located inside San Francisco’s Moscone Center, AI was an omnipresent reference point with companies showcasing their products to thousands of curious attendees passing through for a look. Elsewhere, you could find any number of panel discussions devoted to AI’s proliferation and its likely impact on security.
So, when Symantec’s Chief Technology Officer Hugh Thompson closed out the conference on Friday afternoon, AI’s potential to help or to harm was the headliner.
“Our responsibility as security professionals is to truly understand how these new approaches can fail,” Thompson told the audience. “We want to be on the preemptive side of that and to understand how they can fail - but also to be the biggest advocates of driving them forward.”
Panelist Sebastian Thrun, the founder and President of Udacity, echoed that sentiment, joining Thompson in a wide-ranging conversation about AI. Despite the obvious hurdles ahead, he said that AI’s societal impact left him “incredibly excited” about the future.
Up until the invention of the steam engine, Thrun said, an average person’s productivity was usually tied to their strength and agility. But the introduction of this new powerful technology served as a force amplifier that ultimately revolutionized work. AI will have a similarly transformative impact, he predicted, one that will free humanity from needing to perform mundane, repetitive tasks any longer.
“When the first machines were invented, they turned us into super-humans,” he said. “The big thing now is to outsource our brain and get rid of the work that we don’t want to do.”
“I ask myself what are people good at and what are they bad at,” Thrun responded. As technology frees up humans, he said it will unleash more creativity. “I believe every human being is creative,” he said. “I think of it turning us people into unbelievable super humans.”
Before then, however, people will need to get used to the concept of engaging with inanimate machines and devices in ways that conjure up descriptions straight out of science fiction novels.
“We’re entering an era of human-robot interaction,” said Kate Darling, a researcher at the MIT Media Labs. “These technologies are creeping into people’s lives in ways they didn’t previously.”
Interesting scenarios may ensue involving relationships in which we assign human attributes to robots or smart applications informed by artificial intelligence. She said society is already primed by pop culture and sci-fi to want to assign agency and intent to devices – something she noted has since occurred with early commercial robots, such as the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.
“People already have attachments to their Roomba,” Darling said. “They love the Roomba and feel bad when it gets stuck. As we get better and better design, the empathy we have for these machines will just get [deeper] as the design improves.”
Thompson suggested that society may quickly reach a point where it needs to decide whether ethical or legal considerations should extend to machines in much the same way they now protect humans in civil society.
That may not be so far-fetched. Darling described an MIT workshop where researchers supplied five tiny dinosaur robots and asked the participants to torture and even “kill” the units.
“It was very upsetting to people,” she recalled. “So, I wonder when we interact with these systems, there might be right and wrong ways to treat machines - even though they don’t feel anything.”
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