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Artificial intelligence: Are machines taking over?

Artificial intelligence expert Toby Walsh is convinced that machines will be as smart as human beings within just 50 years. He spoke to DW about the benefits, and ways to prevent the worst consequences.

In 2062: The World AI Made, Toby Walsh renders a dystopic vision of our technology-driven future. Published in 2018, the Australian writer who is also one of the world's leading scientists in the field of artificial intelligence, chose the year 2062 because his daughter would have been as old that year as he was when he wrote the book. 

Walsh makes clear how AI will change our lives, our work, but also have effects on politics and society in general. He also sets out to answer important questions: Will robots develop consciousness? Will we end up becoming machines ourselves? And how will we wage wars in the future?

The author and researcher was recently in Germany to speak at "Recalculating the Route," a cultural symposium themed around the future held at the Goethe Institute in Weimar in June. DW talked further with Walsh about his visions for the future.

Read moreArtificial intelligence: The EU's 7 steps for trusty AI

DW: People have long been scared of machines. Is there a growing justification for this fear in 2019?

Toby Walsh: There's a deep psychological fear in our psyche that goes back millennia, one in which people think that machines might actually take over. Actually, I think the things we should be fearful of are actually not the intelligent machines, but the stupidity of machines. And that we'll be giving responsibility to machines that don't have the appropriate intelligence.

Certainly machines have no consciousness, no sentience, no desires of their own. Machines do only what we tell them to do; they're not going to suddenly wake up and decide to take over the planet.

The problem with machines is is that they do exactly what we tell them to do. And sometimes we haven't thought carefully through what we're telling them to do. 

Part of the intention of my book is to prompt people not to be so worried about these sorts of Terminator scenarios in which machines rise up and take over the world. However, they should realize that it's actually much more insidious that we are already handing over decisions to machines that might be biased, might be racist or sexist, and all these sorts of things that we've been trying to get out of a society for the last hundred years.

How might AI actually serve to improve our future?

To live in the world in a more sustainable way, we have to embrace technology. If we think of all the challenges facing the world, the only hope we have to deal with all these stresses is what we've done for the last hundred years, which is to embrace technology.

Read moreCan AI create real art?

People forget that since the Industrial Revolution, in a wealthy country like Germany, life expectancy has nearly doubled — because of the fact that we have used technologies. We have used science to live healthier lives, to understand disease and to invent things like penicillin that have allowed us to live much longer. 

Politics have completely failed us, so our only hope now is to deal with things like climate change by looking for technical fixes.

Man with glasses and receding hairline smiles into camera

Toby Walsh says artificial intelligence can bring great benefits, but also pitfalls

Do you think AI will become our new God?

I think the risk is that we won't be gods ourselves. There'll be an underclass of people who are unemployed and unemployable because the machines are doing all the work and the wealth is owned by a very few small number of individuals who are the owners of the robots. So, we'll be far from God. We'll be living a very low-quality life. At the end of the day, technology is to be used for us.

And it will hopefully amplify our humanity. After all, it's all those very human things — our empathy, our social intelligence, our emotional intelligence, our creativity — that machines don't have today.

Read moreResistance to killer robots growing

And it's not clear if they ever will have those things. We are ultimately going to appreciate things that are touched or made by the human hand. We pay much more for handcrafted breads and homemade beer — and all those things that only humans make — than for the mass-produced things the machines make.

A woman looks at a work of art created by an algorithm

A woman looks at a work of art created by an algorithm in 2018. It was produced by a French collective "Obvious," which produces art using artificial intelligence.

What should we do now to better control the way we utilize machines in the future?

People need to be better educated about the risks. We need regulation; we need governments. We're discovering that we have to properly regulate the tech sector, just like we regulated big oil and big pharma and big tobacco. All of those companies had to be regulated so that they worked for the public good.

Europe is leading the way. The General Data Protection Regulation is a beginning, an example of how to get appropriate privacy, and to get the tech companies behaving with our data more appropriately. And the interesting thing is, my friends and colleagues working in the tech sector will tell you in private they need to be regulated.

So we live in interesting times?

Yes, very interesting times. But equally, it's amazing that the biggest changes in our lives have been in the past 30 years. We've had the internet only in the last 30 years. We've only had smartphones for a dozen years. Hard to imagine we could live now without these.

They've both been a great convenience in our lives. And that's why we have to think more carefully about technology and how it can help us to tackle those wicked problems like climate change and rising inequality and the global refugee problem. Technologies can help us do that.

Toby Walsh is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He leads a research group focusing on algorithmic decision theory. In 2018, he was a visiting professor at the Institute of Software Engineering and Computer Science at the Technical University of Berlin.

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