Yann LeCun, AI guru and co-recipient of the 2018 Turing Award, reckons that the current state of AI is “characterised by trial and error, confusion, overconfidence and a lack of overall understanding”.  So, pretty much slap-bang in the middle of that awkward teenager phase then. It is certainly true that we have no real idea about how neural networks work, which means that most AI scientists are working by trial and error, and with a certain degree of confusion. The real problems come (as every parent of a teenager knows) when there is too much confidence. More confidence than understanding is a dangerous balance, and that is where we probably are with AI right now.

Prof Stuart Russell, the founder of the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, also believes that AI scientists are ‘spooked’ by their own success in the field, and compares the advance of AI to the development of the atom bomb: “the physicists knew that atomic energy existed, they could measure the masses of different atoms, and they could figure out how much energy could be released if you could do the conversion between different types of atoms. And then it happened and they weren’t ready for it.”

So how do we reel our unruly teenager in without beating all the ambition out of them (for there are huge benefits to be gained from responsible AI)? Professor Russell’s solution, as he will lay out in this years BBC Reith Lectures, is to make sure that AI can work with, and alongside, humans. That means developing machines that know, like humans, the true objective is uncertain, meaning they must check in with us on any decision. Practically, that would include a code of conduct and training for researchers, plus legislation and treaties to ensure the safety of AI systems in use. But it is not just the responsibility of the researchers and government, but of the public in general to shape how AI will grow up to be a sensible adult that contributes to society. For one thing is certain, everyone grows up eventually…

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