I must admit my first uncharitable thought when reading Sergey Brin’s thoughts and warnings about artificial intelligence, as communicated in his annual note to investors, was “What’s he up to? What cunning plan has been hatched to try and put the brakes on AI and which competitor does he have in his crosshairs?”
Because it’s not as if Brin has anything terribly new or insightful to say. He’s crowd-sourced a general feeling of angst that even those of us who don’t found and run multi-billion dollar enterprises are currently feeling about the potential runaway, unintended consequences of technology in general and AI in particular.
But just in case we thought Google wanted to downplay AI for some ulterior motive, Brin first rattles through Google’s long list of achievements in the area and talks about how he feels astounded, as do we all, by the huge advances in processor power that have made practical AI a reality and how much Google has done to advance the cause.
“Every month, there are stunning new applications and transformative new techniques. In this sense, we are truly in a technology renaissance, an exciting time where we can see applications across nearly every segment of modern society,” he writes.
He continues, “However, such powerful tools also bring with them new questions and responsibilities. How will they affect employment across different sectors? How can we understand what they are doing under the hood? What about measures of fairness? How might they manipulate people? Are they safe?”
We all watched Mark Zuckerberg in front of the Senate Committee the other week (thanks to the advance of technology it was in effect a global grilling) looking round-eyed like a frightened child. Some of us (OK, just me then) actually felt sorry for him. This, his internal monologue must have been reminding him, was not the gig he signed up for when he decided to launch Facebook.
I believe Sergey saw Zuckerberg’s ordeal too and suddenly imagined himself sitting in the same chair - there but for the grace of Moore’s Law goes he.
Brin’s note continues: “Technology companies have historically been wide- eyed and idealistic about the opportunities that their innovations create (yes, they have - Google for instance). And for the overwhelming part, the arc of history shows that these advances, including the Internet and mobile devices, have created opportunities and dramatically improved the quality of life for billions of people. However, there are very legitimate and pertinent issues being raised, across the globe, about the implications and impacts of these advances. This is an important discussion to have. While I am optimistic about the potential to bring technology to bear on the greatest problems in the world, we are on a path that we must tread with deep responsibility, care, and humility. That is Alphabet’s goal.”
It will be interesting to see if, and by how much, Brin translates these observations into Alphabet policy and behaviour. Having done so much to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible,” along with Facebook his next objective, whether he likes it or not, may be to round up some of the personal and other info he’s been releasing, get it back in the box and make it inaccessible again. As someone once said, “Don’t be Evil”, or at least try not to be.
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