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A world where human intelligence is no longer the pinnacle

In a freewheeling interview with Saket Suman, Toby Walsh, the Chief Scientist at the University of New South Wales AI Institute, expands on the unfolding realization of his childhood dream of a world where intelligent computers and robots permeate every aspect of our lives

13 July, 2023 | 6m read

In his early years, Toby Walsh developed a deep fascination with science fiction literature, immersing himself in its imaginative worlds. By the tender age of eight or nine, he was captivated by the concept of intelligent robots and computers becoming an integral part of our lives. As fate would have it, the advent of accessible computers coincided with his burgeoning curiosity. When he was barely eleven years old, he embarked on his programming journey, grasping the realization that the realm he once perceived as distant was indeed within his grasp.

The seed was planted, and from that moment on, Walsh devoted his entire life to nurturing its growth, ardently pursuing the opportunity to contribute to the development of this visionary world.

Now, after four decades of dedication, he stands on the cusp of achievement, witnessing the unfolding realization of his childhood dream. He believes that the world at large is awakening to this shared aspiration ~ a future where intelligent computers and robots will permeate every aspect of our lives.

Walsh reminisced about the beginnings of this field, which dates back to the 1960s – a time when he was yet to be born. Following his undergraduate degree at Cambridge, he set on a journey to pursue his passion for artificial intelligence (AI) by enrolling in a Ph.D. programme at the University of Edinburgh. Notably, Edinburgh boasted the world’s sole department dedicated to the study of AI at that time, making it a sought-after destination for aspiring scholars like himself. Since then, he has been unwavering in his commitment to academia, diligently working towards his dream within the realm of AI.

Walsh, who has held research positions in Australia, England, Ireland, Italy, France, Germany, Scotland, and Sweden, expressed his concerns about the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology. While acknowledging its numerous positive aspects, Walsh emphasized the existence of both beneficial and detrimental applications of AI. Of particular concern to him were the implications of AI warfare, as well as its current employment in distorting democratic processes and poisoning social media discussions.

The manipulation of AI to promote conspiracy theories and other divisive content on digital platforms has become a pressing issue in the realm of democratic debate. Walsh stressed that such exploitation is gradually corrupting the quality of discussions, endangering the very foundations of our democratic systems. He highlighted the urgent need to address this concern and prevent the further erosion of the public discourse.

Another growing concern raised by Walsh pertained to the exacerbation of societal inequality through the advancement of AI and digital technologies. While the proliferation of these technologies has enabled the accumulation of immense wealth for a select few, the majority of individuals find themselves left behind. The detrimental consequences include an increasing wealth gap, with millionaires becoming billionaires and billionaires amassing unprecedented fortunes. Simultaneously, a significant portion of the population faces impoverishment as they grapple with job displacement caused by intelligent algorithms.

Walsh urged society to recognize the interconnected nature of these issues, emphasizing that they mutually reinforce one another. The combined impact of AI warfare, the manipulation of democratic debates, and rising inequality necessitates immediate attention and concerted efforts to address these challenges in order to shape a more inclusive and equitable future.

“It’s hard to think of an industry that won’t be automated and won’t have these tools that will take over. However, that’s going to be very helpful in a number of respects, the cost of necessities of life is going to plummet, because one of the most significant costs in making the necessities, clothing, housing and feeding, is the human labour we currently use. And if we are getting machines that don’t have to be paid wages and don’t have to be supported in retirement, then the cost of those necessities will decrease,” Walsh told this writer in an interview at Jaipur Literature Festival 2023.

He stressed that it’s not yet clear whether more jobs will be destroyed than created due to the advent of AI, before reminding that in the past, more jobs have been created by technology than destroyed.

“But there is something fundamentally different from the past because whenever we automated jobs, they were typically manual jobs. Cognitive tasks were not being automated. We hadn’t done anything in the past with machines that required them to think. Now we have built machines to do the thinking, you have to ask the question, and the machine will give the answer. And there are things that are uniquely human, we have much more creativity than machines, and we are much more flexible and adaptable than machines. But it’s not clear that’s always going to be true,” he added.

Walsh prescribed that in the race against the machines, we (humans) should look to play to our strengths, not to compete, but to use them to amplify what they can do and what we want them to do for us.

Walsh spoke at length on one of the ethical challenges posed by AI—fairness. The question at hand is whether machines can be as fair as, or even fairer than, humans. Walsh emphasized that humans, as decision-makers, are plagued by subconscious and unconscious biases, including racism, sexism, and ageism. Despite extensive training and conscious efforts, these biases persist. However, Walsh posited that machines, if properly trained to eliminate biases, could potentially make better decisions than humans. Although this poses a significant technical challenge, it opens the door to a future where machines are less biased than their human counterparts.

Nevertheless, Walsh cautioned against the assumption that just because machines make less biased decisions, we are obligated to rely on them. He pointed out that certain domains, such as the judiciary or immigration systems, might lead us down a dystopian path if we relinquish high-stakes decisions to AI.

Drawing inspiration from literary giants like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, who warned us of such potential outcomes, Walsh expressed his concerns. While there are instances where machines could make superior decisions to humans, he argued against granting them authority in such critical matters. Walsh firmly stated that he did not wish to wake up in a world where machines determine his

liberty. He acknowledged that flawed decisions from fellow humans might still be preferable to the alternative.

“We now have a technology that allows us to monitor a whole nation in real-time. In China, they have a facial recognition system that can scan a billion faces in a minute, the whole population of the country in a minute, imagine that! AI changes the scale of what we can do. It’s no longer the big brother, instead, it is watching humans, the computers are watching us,” he cautioned.

He emphasized that a significant shift is imminent ~ a world where human intelligence is no longer the pinnacle. As newer technologies emerge, possessing even greater intelligence, they will become widely and affordably accessible. With this surge in intelligence, Walsh believes that humanity will be capable of accomplishing extraordinary feats, such as finding cures for cancer and unlocking the potential of nuclear fusion to provide abundant and almost free energy.

(Toby Walsh is Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of New South Wales, research group leader at Data61, adjunct professor at QUT, External Professor of the Department of Information Science at Uppsala University, an honorary fellow of the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University and an Associate Member of the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW. Feature Image Courtesy: unsw.edu.au)

(Written by Saket Suman)

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