President Obama and MIT Media Lab Director Talk Future of AI

Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich recently sat down with President Barack Obama and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito in the White House to discuss the numerous possibilities and potential implications of artificial intelligence and machine learning. “It’s worth thinking about because it stretches our imaginations and gets us thinking about the issues of choice and free will that actually do have some significant applications for specialized AI,” said Obama. “If properly harnessed, it can generate enormous prosperity and opportunity. But it also has some downsides that we’re gonna have to figure out in terms of not eliminating jobs. It could increase inequality. It could suppress wages.”

“We’ve been seeing specialized AI in every aspect of our lives, from medicine and transportation to how electricity is distributed, and it promises to create a vastly more productive and efficient economy,” he noted.

“One of my concerns is that it’s been a predominately male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings,” Ito added. “A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society.”

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The Wired piece was published as the White House released its new report that “focuses on the opportunities, considerations, and challenges of artificial intelligence.” (The full report, Preparing For the Future of Artificial Intelligence, is available online as a PDF document.)

For Dadich’s full interview, visit Wired online. We’ve also listed some select highlights below:

OBAMA: I tend to be on the optimistic side — historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, and people find that new jobs are created, they migrate, and our standards of living generally go up. I do think that we may be in a slightly different period now, simply because of the pervasive applicability of AI and other technologies. High-skill folks do very well in these systems. They can leverage their talents, they can interface with machines to extend their reach, their sales, their products and services. Low-wage, low-skill individuals become more and more redundant, and their jobs may not be replaced, but wages are suppressed. And if we are going to successfully manage this transition, we are going to have to have a societal conversation about how we manage this.

ITO: I feel like this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem. Everybody needs to understand that how AI behaves is important. In the Media Lab we use the term extended intelligence. Because the question is, how do we build societal values into AI?

OBAMA: When we had lunch a while back, Joi used the example of self-driving cars. The technology is essentially here. We have machines that can make a bunch of quick decisions that could drastically reduce traffic fatalities, drastically improve the efficiency of our transpor­tation grid, and help solve things like carbon emissions that are causing the warming of the planet. But Joi made a very elegant point, which is, what are the values that we’re going to embed in the cars? There are gonna be a bunch of choices that you have to make, the classic problem being: If the car is driving, you can swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian, but then you might hit a wall and kill yourself. It’s a moral decision, and who’s setting up those rules?

OBAMA: The government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research. As technologies emerge and mature, then figuring out how they get incorporated into existing regulatory structures becomes a tougher problem, and the govern­ment needs to be involved a little bit more. Not always to force the new technology into the square peg that exists but to make sure the regulations reflect a broad base set of values. Otherwise, we may find that it’s disadvantaging certain people or certain groups.

OBAMA: Somebody reminded me that the space program was half a percent of GDP. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but in today’s dollars that would be $80 billion that we would be spending annually … on AI. Right now we’re spending probably less than a billion. That undoubtedly will accelerate, but part of what we’re gonna have to understand is that if we want the values of a diverse community represented in these breakthrough technologies, then government funding has to be a part of it.

OBAMA: I think my directive to my national security team is, don’t worry as much yet about machines taking over the world. Worry about the capacity of either nonstate actors or hostile actors to penetrate systems, and in that sense it is not conceptually different than a lot of the cybersecurity work we’re doing.

ITO: What’s important is to find the people who want to use AI for good — communities and leaders — and figure out how to help them use it.

OBAMA: There is a whole bunch of work we have to do around getting government to be more customer friendly and making it at least as easy to file your taxes as it is to order a pizza or buy an airline ticket. Whether it’s encouraging people to vote or dislodging Big Data so that people can use it more easily or getting their forms processed online more simply — there’s a huge amount of work to drag the federal government and state governments and local governments into the 21st century. The gap between the talent in the federal government and the private sector is actually not wide at all. The technology gap, though, is massive.

Related:
The Combination of Human and Artificial Intelligence Will Define Humanity’s Future, TechCrunch, 10/12/16
What Leading AI, Machine Learning and Robotics Scientists Say About the Future, Forbes, 10/12/16
The U.S. Government Has Been Funding AI for 50 Years, and Just Came Up with a Plan for Its Future, Quartz, 10/12/16