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AI’s PR Problem

The spooky-sounding name was probably never a good idea.
April 25, 2017

Smart people like Bill Gates and Steven Hawking have warned that artificial intelligence could threaten the human race.

And they’re not the only ones worried. The Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament recently issued a report calling on the EU to require intelligent robots to be registered, in part so their ethical character can be assessed. The “Stop Killer Robots” movement, opposed to the use of so-called autonomous weapons in war, is influencing both United Nations and U.S. Defense Department policy.

Artificial intelligence, it seems, has a PR problem. While it’s true that today’s machines can credibly perform many tasks (playing chess, driving cars) that were once reserved for humans, that doesn’t mean the machines are growing more intelligent and ambitious. It just means they’re doing what we built them to do.

Machines have been taking over skilled work for centuries, but the machines don’t aspire to better jobs and higher employment. Jacquard looms replaced expert needleworkers in the 19th century, but they didn’t spell doom for tailors. Until the mid-20th century we relied on our best and brightest to do arithmetic, but now that comparably capable devices are given away as promotional trinkets at trade shows, the mathematically minded among us can focus on tasks that require broader skills, like statistical analysis.

I’d suggest that one problem is the name itself. Had artificial intelligence been named something less spooky, it might seem as prosaic as operations research or predictive analytics. Perhaps a less provocative description would be something like “anthropic computing,” a broad moniker that could encompass efforts to design biologically inspired computer systems, machines that mimic the human form or abilities, and programs that interact with people in natural, familiar ways.

Yes, we should be careful about how we deploy AI, but not because we are summoning some mythical demon. Instead, we should accept these remarkable inventions for what they really are—potent tools that promise a more prosperous and comfortable future.

Jerry Kaplan teaches at Stanford University. His latest book is Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know, from Oxford University Press.

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