AI — Raising us up to new heights or causing our downfall? Social opportunities and challenges

Thinking of AI, what pops into people’s minds first is most likely a robot — either a human-looking specimen, such as Star Wars’ iconic C-3PO — or possibly something a little less ‘uncanny valley’ like Wall-E from the Disney Pixar movie. In reality, AI is much more than sci-fi movie robots. Let us take a brief look at the definition of AI:

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes artificial intelligence (aka machine intelligence) as ‘[…] the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.’ AI research is the study of non-biological, intelligent agents, that perceive their environment, act in relation to it, and/or manipulate it in order to achieve a given goal. Thus, AI can either have a physical body or simply be a computer programme.

Artificial intelligence has come a long way from code-cracking machines during the Second World War to beating Russian chess champions in the nineties until today’s self-driving cars. And as AI is becoming more advanced, the potential risks and benefits are increasing as well. Indeed, many experts think that artificial ‘superintelligence’, resulting in technological singularity — the event of AI surpassing human intelligence — will be achieved within our lifetime.

There are many fears and concerns associated with the advancement of AI.

On the one hand, critical voices such as Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking are afraid that the upcoming explosion of machine intelligence will literally blow up human civilisation — if we do not prepare accordingly.

Contrary to popular belief, this worry does not so much stem from fear of machines ‘turning to the dark side” à la Stephen King’s ‘Maximum Overdrive’ (the film adaptation has a high entertainment value, btw!). As machines do not have a conscience, they cannot act with malicious intent — something that humans are very well capable of. AI may, however, have goals related to a given task, which can be in misalignment with human objectives and needs:

Let us assume that an AI is tasked with creating a hydro-electric energy plant. It chooses an advantageous location and decides to flood a valley. Should a village find itself in the way of the flooding path, that is simply tough luck, as it will not keep the AI from pursuing its plan. Another counter-argument is the very real threat of AI replacing humans in the workforce, possibly leading to mass-unemployment. Last but not least, even superintelligent machines can make mistakes if they are fed biased or wrong information — with potentially disastrous results.

On the other hand, there are also more positive stances: Tom Gruber, co-founder of Siri Inc., sees AI as an opportunity to empower our society and enhance human capabilities. Therefore, to use the highly quotable message of his TED-talk: ‘Every time a machine gets smarter, we get smarter’.

There is no denying that there are many advantages to AI:

• AI makes logical, objective decisions, unaffected by emotions and is thus less error-prone than humans are.

• Being made of non-biological material, AI is definitely more sturdy than us and can be used for exploring places beyond human reach.

• Machines do not need sleep and can therefore work 24/7 (apart from occasional maintenance breaks, of course).

• AI is already making our everyday life easier! People travel with GPS, ask Siri for advice, and especially for the younger generation smartphones feel more like an artificial limb than artificial intelligence.

• In addition, the medical field is making extensive use of AI: Computer programmes are assisting with diagnosis and operation simulators are used for training surgeons, to just name a few examples.

In the end, AI is neither inherently good nor bad. It simply is what it is: A tool that can be used to improve human lives or make them miserable. Therefore, the danger does not come from artificial but rather from human intelligence! The responsibility lies not with AI, it lies with us. It can merely assist us in our endeavours, whatever they may be.

To come back to Star Wars, allow me to adapt the wise words of Master Yoda: ‘May the force of responsibility be with us!’

Written by Nina Feurer and published on, May 8 2018