Fears of AI run amok just like fears of first human flight — Dr Ken Ford

28 Aug 2015

Ahead of this weekend’s George Boole Bicentenary Celebration at University College CorK (UCC), director for the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), Dr Ken Ford, said he believes that artificial intelligence (AI) shouldn’t imitate humans, but aid them.

The institute that Dr Ken Ford leads is one of the most revered in the US as a not-for-profit research institute aiming to pioneer technologies to leverage and extend human capabilities.

It does work in the fields of AI; cognitive science; knowledge modelling and sharing; robotics and exoskeletons; advanced interfaces and displays; cybersecurity; linguistics; computer-mediated learning systems; intelligent data understanding, big data and machine learning.

Among his CV highlights, Dr Ford spent time as associate director and director of NASA’s Center of Excellence in Information Technology during the late 1990s and, upon coming to office as president of the US, George W Bush nominated him to serve on the National Science Board guiding the nation’s science policy.

And those attending his talk at the George Boole Bicentenary Celebration at University College Cork (UCC) this weekend will have a chance to hear an opinion of AI you rarely get to hear in the media.

Over the past few months, we have seen time and again some of the most famous names in science and tech – including Elon Musk and Prof Stephen Hawking – come out warning of the dangers of AI running amok and ending mankind.

This, Dr Ford tells Siliconrepublic.com, shows the misguided view we have towards AI in general and where we’re taking the technology.

Hal 2001

The infamous eye of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Image via Erin Williamson/Flickr

I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that

“Ironically,” he says, “in fictional accounts of superhuman AI running amok, the source of the hazard is often not that the machine was too intelligent or too artificial, but that it was too human.

“Consider the fictional robot Hal in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hal’s design reflects the old and misguided ambition of AI, that is, to create an artificial human. However, simpler, more reliable and cost-effective methods exist for creating humans.”

This, Dr Ford says, has led most AI and robotics experts to move away from trying to play God to creating companions.

“Today, AI researchers are not engaged in an effort to imitate human abilities, but to extend and amplify them, just as aircraft designers are not aiming to create artificial birds,” he says. “Rather than intelligent computers becoming our rivals or doing our thinking for us, they will – and have already – become our amplifiers and teammates.”

Continuing this comparison between the dawning of AI technology and aircraft technology, Dr Ford says any new technology or breakthrough experiences a period of fear in the beginning.

“By the 1920s the possibility of flight was not an issue, but the perceived danger of flight was. Pundits argued passionately that heavier than air flight was too dangerous to society, and should be made illegal by international agreement. In capitals around the world, lobbyists strove to pass laws forbidding attempts at flight. “

“The parallel between AI and artificial flight is illuminating and suggests that the traditional view of the goal of AI — that is, to create a machine that can successfully imitate human behavior — is wrong.”

Running Man robot

IHMC’s Running Man robot after coming second in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Image via IHMC

Success of Running Man

As director of the IHMC, Dr Ford was able to celebrate along with his colleagues its notable success at the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals 2015, which saw its advanced Running Man robot finish in second place.

The Running Man robot, with little help from its human handling team, managed to: drive a car; walk over debris; cut a hole in a wall, turn a valve for a fire hose and perform other tasks.

With its second placing in mind, Dr Ford says he believes in the decades that have followed his initial interest in all things AI and robotics, examples like Running Man are a testament to how far we’ve actually come.

“Over the next decades, progress in AI will likely continue to advance rapidly,” he says. “Once proponents of artificial flight were able to give up mimicking the bird, we moved from the Wright Brothers to Neil Armstrong in less than one lifetime.”

Dr Ken Ford will be speaking at 12.10pm tomorrow (29 August) at the George Boole Bicentenary Celebration at UCC, giving his talk entitled ‘On Boolean Wings’ discussing the future of AI and its wrongful perception by many. Free tickets for the event can be booked on Eventbrite.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic