Tech giants try to calm fears over artificial intelligence

Tech giants try to calm fears over artificial intelligence
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Silicon Valley powerhouses are trying to calm public fears about the rise of artificial intelligence.

A new non-profit coalition that counts Google, Facebook and Amazon as members is hoping to demystify the emerging technology — one tech giants believe has the potential to transform their businesses.

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"I think [it's] important to communicate to the greater public that the major providers of these technologies — and I would probably say the major investors in recent development of these technologies — care," said Eric Horvitz, a technical fellow and managing director at Microsoft Research who is an interim co-chair of the new effort.

“They care how these technologies will influence people and [about] the social and societal consequences more broadly.”

Artificial intelligence is a field that encompasses many different technological developments. It's seen in innovations like self-driving cars, helping them navigate the roads, and in the personal assistant apps on smartphones that answer queries, organize calendars and more.

Observers have been predicting a coming revolution in artificial intelligence that could expand its use and its benefits to consumers.

But popular culture has long stoked fears about machines taking over and wreaking havoc in films like "The Terminator" and "War Games." That has industry competitors joining forces to ease the public's concerns.

The industry coalition, the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society, also includes representatives from Microsoft, IBM and DeepMind, a division of Google.

It says it will work to develop best practices and research that focuses on “ethics, fairness, and inclusivity” as well as privacy questions.

Horvitz stressed that public education was "secondary" to developing and implementing best practices for people working on AI technologies.

He pointed to areas like bias in machine learning, the field that involves building computer systems that can evolve without continued human programming, aswell as the relationship between human labor and artificial intelligence as areas where the industry partnership hopes to make progress.

But the group has also defined its role with the public at large through its core principles.

“We will educate and listen to the public and actively engage stakeholders to seek their feedback on our focus, inform them of our work, and address their questions,” the group says.

Horvitz said that the group would look to broaden the discussion of artificial intelligence to better tout the benefits of the technology and dispel fears that stem from popular culture.

“I think many have noted, not just the researchers, that some of the stories that have been getting attention over the last couple of the years have been stories potentially making people believe that some of the science fiction possibilities are coming our way in short order,” he said.

“There’s been a sense that there’s anxiety about AI that is misplaced and that such poor understandings can lead to poor decisions when it comes to thinking through the possibilities, and in fact some of the great possibilities, for AI ahead.”

There are growing questions about how artificial intelligence and machine learning will alter the economic and political worlds.

A report released by Stanford University last month predicted that, in the long term, advances in artificial intelligence may result in the loss of jobs in certain areas of the economy, like trucking.

The researchers cautioned, however, that in the near-term AI is likely to simply do certain tasks, rather than entire jobs, currently performed by humans. They also said the technology had the potential to create new jobs.

“As a society, we are now at a crucial juncture in determining how to deploy AI-based technologies in ways that promote, not hinder, democratic values such as freedom, equality, and transparency,” the researchers said.

They also considered questions related to privacy, legal liability and taxation, among others, reflecting the breadth of issues raised by the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence.

For now, the Partnership on AI is taking a cautious approach. They say they won't directly lobby policymakers on issues related to artificial intelligence.

But the debate over artificial intelligence and potential regulation is already brewing in Washington.

Many of the companies involved in the coalition have been pressing their case individually at the White House, looking to stave off any threat of regulation.

This fall the administration is expected to release a report based on a lengthy examination of the topic. Major companies and their lobbyists in Washington have weighed in as part of that process, urging that regulators not move too fast or too harshly as they think about how the technology should be governed.

“The U.S. government should maintain a light-touch regulatory approach focused on consumers and outcomes over underlying technologies,” said Facebook’s James Hairston in written comments.

“Any approach should consider AI's benefits to consumers and be informed by regular consultation with industry and experts — balanced with adequate consideration of security and privacy policy questions as they arise.”

Michael Beckerman, who leads the Internet Association trade group, said in his comments that “while AI deployment and use is not without risk, this risk is manageable and there are demonstrable economic and non-economic benefits associated with AI.”

Google also submitted comments as part of the review, as did a representative of X, the experimental projects lab under its parent company, Alphabet.

The stakes are high for the Silicon Valley giants.

The companies are engaging in Washington as they find that artificial intelligence technologies are a crucial growth area for their businesses — and they can be expected to keep pushing their case.

Facebook recently laid out a decade-long plan that centers on just three areas: virtual and augmented reality, connectivity and artificial intelligence.

Google has also staked part of its business on AI. Earlier this year, CEO Sundar Pichai announced virtual assistant and messenger products that draw on the company's AI advances.

Pichai was bullish about the potential for the technology and its role in every-day life.

“We believe the real test,” Pichai said, “is whether humans can achieve a lot more with machine learning assisting them.”