Amy Webb on the Future of AI

If the fastest growing power to change our future was concentrated in the hands of only nine decision-makers, would you worry?

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If the fastest growing power to change our future was concentrated in the hands of only nine decision-makers, would you worry?

If you ask Amy Webb (Author, The Big Nine; Founder, Future Today Institute), this question aptly sums up how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being built today. AI, she argues, has the power to shape the future of humanity—a future being built not at research universities, as one might expect, but at just nine companies in two countries. She calls these companies the Big Nine. In the US, the companies are Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple. In China, the companies are Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent.

The problem with this, Webb explains, is that AI development is now driven by market forces and politics, rather than what’s good for people—leading to the possibility of some concerning uses for AI. In her talk at BRITE ’19, Webb offers a number of ways that AI developers can still act to ensure that the AI of the future can be used for the good of humanity:

1. Slow down development

When delivering financial returns takes precedence, as it does at the US companies in the Big Nine, AI developers are under constant pressure to deliver “brand new, shiny products and services” on a tight schedule to be coordinated with annual shareholder meetings. In other words, there is a rush to productize and commercialize their work, and there is currently no incentive to prioritize safety over speed. Webb suggests that tech funders give AI developers “more breathing room” and allow a portion of the Research and Development budget to be allocated for risk assessment.

2. Make systems interoperable

In China, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are largely under the thumb of Beijing, even though they are technically public, independent companies. The AI that developers in China are working on is being used to become the infrastructure and “connective tissue” of a New World Order, in which Chinese ideas, such as the social credit score, could become the norm in any country that needs to do business with China. While it may seem far-fetched for a social credit system to ever catch on in the US, Webb puts it this way: “If we don’t have social credit scores, in a decade, we could get locked out from the global economy.” One suggestion Webb has is for members of the Big Nine to consider making their systems interoperable.

3. Prioritize inclusivity

The current world of AI development is filled with graduates from many of the same top universities—which means that a tool that has the potential to benefit all of humanity is being developed by a select group of people with similar backgrounds. This lack of diversity has been present throughout all of modern AI’s development. In fact, at the seminal 1956 meeting known as the “Dartmouth Workshop” that is widely considered to be the founding event of the field of AI, only one woman was present, and no people of color. To begin to reverse this history, Webb recommends prioritizing inclusivity in AI education and talent recruitment efforts.

For even more ways to take action in the present to change the future of AI—and by extension, humanity—check out Amy Webb’s BRITE ’19 talk video.

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