Science Book a Day Interviews James Barrat

BarratPortraitSpecial thanks to James Barrat for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era

For about 20 years I’ve written and produced documentaries, one of the most rewarding ways of telling stories ever invented. It’s a privilege to plunge into different cultures and eras and put together deeply human narratives that can be enjoyed by everyone. My long fascination with Artificial Intelligence came to a head in 2000, when I interviewed inventor Ray Kurzweil, roboticist Rodney Brooks, and sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke. Kurzweil and Brooks were casually optimistic about a future they considered inevitable – a time when we will share the planet with intelligent machines. “It won’t be some alien invasion of robots coming over the hill,” Kurzweil told me, “because they’ll be made by us.” In his compound in Sri Lanka, Clarke wasn’t so sure. “I think it’s just a matter of time before machines dominate mankind,” he said. “Intelligence will win out.” – Adapted from James’ Homepage

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#1 – What led you to write this book now? Is it a cautionary tale?

I wrote Our Final Invention to spread the word about the hazards of the unrestricted development of artificial Intelligence. I’d like to help move that awareness into the mainstream. Creating human-level AI is job number one for a lot of corporations and government organizations, including Google, IBM, the National Security Agency and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Once human level artificial intelligence (AGI) is achieved, artificial superintelligence, or better-than-human intelligence, won’t be far behind. And unrestricted, that will pose huge risks.

Humans don’t steer the future because we’re the fastest or strongest creatures, but because we’re the smartest. When we share the planet with creatures smarter than us they’ll steer the future.

#2 – It sounds like we’re headed for trouble with AI. What conditions that currently exist might lead us into trouble? And how might we change them?

Artificial Intelligence will present challenges at every step through the development path to superintelligence. The NSA privacy scandal is a good example of how AI is being misused right now.

The National Security Agency has been amassing oceans of data that belong to you and me – phone records, emails, lists of our contacts. That data ocean would be useless if they didn’t have advanced data-mining tools to extract information from it. That’s artificial intelligence. AI gave the NSA awesome powers of knowledge and perception, and they used it to abuse the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution. Those protect freedom of speech and prohibit unreasonable search and seizure.

We need to recognize that AI is a dual use technology, like nuclear fission, capable of great good and great harm. It’s going to be hard to live with and not everyone can be trusted with it.

#3 – You talk about AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) in your book. Can you give us some real-world examples of AGI and how it is are already improving?

AGI, or human level artificial intelligence, doesn’t yet exist, but it’s on its way. IBM’s Watson, the computer that won at Jeopardy! is the first member of a new ecology, cognitive computers. They’re designed from the ground up to work like a brain. A huge economic wind propels their development because the intelligence of a human brain at computer prices will be the hottest commodity in the history of the world.

Imagine a thousand PHD quality brains, each at the price of a computer, working 24/7 on issues like cancer research, climate modeling, and weapons development.

Who won’t want to invest in that technology?

Right now Watson is training to pass the federal medical licensing exam so it can be a physician’s aid. Google has hired Ray Kurzweil to run their project to reverse engineer the brain and create AGI. That’s the Manhattan Project of intelligent machines. In Europe the EU just gave the Blue Brain project a billion Euros. They all know AGI is the product of the future.

#4 – The book has been recently released. What feedback have you received from the public and AI researchers?

I interviewed a lot of AI researchers for Our Final Invention, and they’re behind it – they know the safety issues better than anyone. The public is buying the book because no one told them that AI can really be dangerous – it’s not just a Hollywood movie. They’ve only been fed the good news, and they’re feeling duped.

#5 – Are you working on another project/book you can tell us about?

I’m a documentary filmmaker, so I’m developing Our Final Invention to be a film. And I’m thinking about a book about privacy. As they say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and our privacy is under attack by a lot of organizations. Taxpayers pay the salaries of some of them. They don’t think we care or even notice, but they’re wrong.