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Artificial Intelligence: What’s to Fear?

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HAL 9000, the wayward artificial intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

If artificial intelligence can do everything better than a human being can, then human endeavor is pointless and human beings are valueless.

Credit: Warner Bros.

In 2017, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University shocked the gaming world when they programmed a computer to beat experts in a poker game called no-limit hold 'em. People assumed a poker player's intuition and creative thinking would give him or her the competitive edge. Yet by playing 24 trillion hands of poker every second for two months, the computer "taught" itself an unbeatable strategy.

Many people fear such events. It's not just the potential job losses. If artificial intelligence (AI) can do everything better than a human being can, then human endeavor is pointless and human beings are valueless.

Computers long ago surpassed humans in certain skills—for example, in the ability to calculate and catalog. Yet they have traditionally been unable to reproduce people's creative, imaginative, emotional, and intuitive skills. It is why personalized service workers such as coaches and physicians enjoy some of the sweetest sinecures in the economy. Their humanity, meaning their ability to individualize services and connect with others, which computers lack, adds value. Yet not only does AI win at cards now, it also creates art, writes poetry, and performs psychotherapy. Even lovemaking is at risk, as artificially intelligent robots stand poised to enter the market and provide sexual services and romantic intimacy. With the rise of AI, today's human beings seem to be as vulnerable as yesterday's apes, occupying a more primitive stage of evolution.

But not so fast. AI is not quite the threat it is made out to be. Take, for example, the computer's victory in poker. The computer did not win because it had more intuition; it won because it played a strategy called "game theory optimal" (GTO). The computer simply calculated the optimal frequency for raising, betting, and folding using special equations, independent of whatever cards the other players held. People call what the computer displayed during the game "intelligence," but it was not intelligence as we traditionally understand it.

Such a misinterpretation of AI seems subtle and unimportant. But over time, spread out over different areas of life, misinterpretations of this type launch a cascade of effects that have serious psychosocial consequences. People are right to fear AI robots taking their jobs. They may be right to fear AI killer robots. But AI presents other, smaller dangers that are less exciting but more corrosive in the long run.


From The American Interest
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