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Charting our AI future and reflecting on what makes us human

OXFORD • Galileo viewed nature as a book written in the language of mathematics and decipherable through physics. His metaphor may have been a stretch for his milieu, but not for ours. Ours is a world of digits that must be read through computer science.

It is a world in which artificial intelligence (AI) applications perform many tasks better than we can. Like fish in water, digital technologies are our infosphere's true natives, while we analogue organisms try to adapt to a new habitat, one that has come to include a mix of analogue and digital components.

We are sharing the infosphere with artificial agents that are increasingly smart, autonomous and even social. Some of these agents are already right in front of us, and others are discernible on the horizon, while later generations are unforeseeable. And the most profound implication of this epochal change may be that we are most likely only at the beginning of it.

The AI agents that have already arrived come in soft forms, such as apps, Web bots, algorithms and software of all kinds; and hard forms, such as robots, driverless cars, smart watches and other gadgets. They are replacing even white-collar workers and performing functions that, just a few years ago, were considered off-limits for technological disruption: cataloguing images, translating documents, interpreting radiographs, flying drones, extracting new information from huge data sets, and so forth.

Digital technologies and automation have been replacing workers in agriculture and manufacturing for decades. Now, they are coming to the services sector. More old jobs will continue to disappear, and while we can only guess at the scale of the coming disruption, we should assume that it will be profound. Any job in which people serve as an interface - between, say, a GPS and a car, documents in different languages, ingredients and a finished dish, or symptoms and a corresponding disease - is now at risk.

But, at the same time, new jobs will appear, because we will need new interfaces between automated services, websites, AI applications and so forth. Someone will need to ensure that the AI service's translations are accurate and reliable.

What's more, many tasks will not be cost-effective for AI applications. For example, Amazon's Mechanical Turk program claims to give its customers "access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries", and is marketed as a form of "artificial artificial intelligence". But as the repetition indicates, the human "Turks" are performing brainless tasks, and being paid pennies.

These workers are in no position to turn down a job. The risk is that AI will only continue to polarise our societies - between haves and never-will-haves - if we do not manage its effects. It is not hard to imagine a future social hierarchy that places a few patricians above both the machines and a massive new underclass of plebs. Meanwhile, as jobs go, so will tax revenues; and it is unlikely that the companies profiting from AI will willingly step in to support adequate social welfare programmes for their former employees.

Instead, we will have to do something to make companies pay more, perhaps with a "robo-tax" on AI applications. We should also consider legislation and regulations to keep certain jobs "human". Indeed, such measures are also why driverless trains are still rare despite being more manageable than driverless taxis or buses.

Still, not all of AI's implications for the future are so obvious. Some old jobs will survive, even when a machine is doing most of the work. A gardener who delegates cutting the grass to a "smart" lawnmower will simply have more time to focus on other things, such as landscape design. At the same time, other tasks will be delegated back to us to perform (for free) as users, such as in the self-checkout lane at the supermarket.

Another source of uncertainty concerns the point at which AI is no longer controlled by a guild of technicians and managers. What will happen when AI becomes "democratised" and is available to billions of people on their smartphones or some other device?

For starters, AI applications' smart behaviour will challenge our intelligent behaviour because they will be more adaptable to the future infosphere. A world where autonomous AI systems can predict and manipulate our choices will force us to rethink the meaning of freedom. And we will have to rethink sociability as well, as artificial companions, holograms (or mere voices), 3D servants, or life-like sexbots provide attractive and possibly indistinguishable alternatives to human interaction.

It is unclear how all of this will play out, but we can rest assured that new artificial agents will not confirm the scaremongers' warnings, or usher in a dystopian science-fiction scenario. Brave New World is not coming to life, and the "Terminator" is not lurking just beyond the horizon, either. We should remember that AI is almost an oxymoron: Future smart technologies will be as stupid as your old car. In fact, delegating sensitive tasks to such "stupid" agents is one of the future risks.

All of these profound transformations oblige us to reflect seriously on who we are, could be and would like to become. AI will challenge the exalted status we have conferred on our species. While I do not think that we are wrong to consider ourselves exceptional, I suspect that AI will help us identify the irreproducible, strictly human elements of our existence, and make us realise that we are exceptional only insofar as we are successfully dysfunctional.

In the great software of the universe, we will remain a beautiful bug, and AI will increasingly become a normal feature.

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  • The writer is professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford and the author, most recently, of The Fourth Revolution: How The Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2017, with the headline 'Charting our AI future and reflecting on what makes us human'. Print Edition | Subscribe