After decades of promise and hype, artificial intelligence is finally becoming one of the most important technologies of our era. As AI continues to both spread and advance, will it enhance human capacities or will it lessen human autonomy and agency? By 2030, will most people be better or worse off than they’re today?
To shed light on these very important questions, the Pew Research Center canvassed AI experts this past summer, including technologists developers, and business and policy leaders. It received almost 1,000 responses, which formed the basis for its recently published report Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humans.
Overall, 63% of respondents were optimistic, predicting that most individuals will mostly be better off, while 37% thought otherwise. But optimistic or not, most experts expressed concerns about the long-term impact of AI on “the essential elements of being human.”
The survey further asked the experts to explain their hopes and fears, to sketch out how they envision human-machine interactions over the coming decade, and what actions should be taken to assure the best possible future. Many answered, and their detailed comments are organized into the report’s three main sections: concerns; suggested solutions; and expectations for the future. Let me briefly discuss the key points in each section.
Concerns about human-AI evolution
The use of AI reduces individual’s control over their lives. “For years, code-based tools in robots and other systems have performed repetitive tasks like factory-floor assembly activities. Today, these tools are quickly evolving to master human traits such as reason, logic, learning, task-performance and creativity.”
Experts worry that individuals are ceding control over many important decisions to AI-based technologies and tools. People do so because of the perceived advantages gained by the use of these powerful tools, – e.g., efficiency, convenience, search capabilities. But, human autonomy and agency may be at risk, sacrificing, to varying degrees, our independence, privacy, and decision-making power. These concerns will only increase as AI advances continue to permeate just about every aspect of the economy, society and our personal lives.
Surveillance and data systems are primarily designed for efficiency, profit and control. Such systems can be inherently dangerous. “Most AI tools are and will be in the hands of companies striving for profits or governments striving for power. Values and ethics are often not baked into the digital systems making people’s decisions for them. These systems are globally networked and not easy to regulate or rein in… Who decides what about people’s code-defined lives, when, where, why and how?”
Many respondents expressed concerns that the future of AI will be primarily shaped by the quest for efficiencies, profit and power, rather than the empowerment of individuals and the betterment of humanity. Experts are also justifiably worried that our increasingly complex AI systems will be prone to serious errors, biases, and false or mistaken assumptions. We need to ensure that our complex AI systems do what we want them to do.
Displacement of human jobs by AI will widen economic divides, possibly leading to social upheaval. Fears that machines will put humans out of work are not new. Throughout the Industrial Revolution there were periodic panics about the impact of automation on jobs. Automation fears have understandbly accelerated in recent years, as our increasingly smart machines are now being applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans.
“The efficiencies and other economic advantages of code-based machine intelligence will continue to disrupt all aspects of human work. While some expect new jobs will emerge, others worry about massive job losses, widening economic divides and social upheavals, including populist uprisings.”
A recent McKinsey report noted while there will likely be enough work to maintain full employment by 2030, the transition will be very challenging, “on a scale not seen since the transition of the labor force out of agriculture in the early 1900s in the United States and Europe, and more recently in China… up to 375 million workers, or 14 percent of the global workforce, may need to change occupations – and virtually all workers may need to adapt to work alongside machines in new ways.”
Individuals’ cognitive, social and survival skills will be diminished as they become dependent on AI. While many see AI as augmenting human capacities, some predict “that people’s deepening dependence on machine-driven networks will erode their abilities to think for themselves, take action independent of automated systems and interact effectively with others.”
Mayhem: Citizens will face increased vulnerabilities, including cybercrime; autonomous, out-of-control cyberwarfare; and weaponized information. Some fear that AI will lead to the erosion of our traditional social and political structures, “the use of weaponized information, lies and propaganda to dangerously destabilize human groups,” and even “the possibility of great loss of lives due to accelerated growth of autonomous military applications”
Solutions for addressing these AI concerns
Many of the participants in the Pew Research survey also contributed solutions to these worrisome potential AI future.
Improve human collaboration across borders and stakeholder groups. The top priority, a number of experts said, is to achieve a common understanding of the evolving concerns over AI, and to create widely accepted approaches to address these challenges.
Develop policies to assure that development of AI will be directed at augmenting humans and the common good. Many experts suggested that “there has to be an overall change in the development, regulation and certification of autonomous systems… that help individuals assure that technology meets social and ethical responsibilities for the common good.”
Shift the priorities of economic, political and education systems to better help humans stay ahead in the “race with the robots.” Make sure that AI advances are aimed at human augmentation for all, regardless of economic class.
How will humans and AI co-evolve by 2030?
Experts were also invited to share their expectations for the co-evolution of humans and AI. While expressing serious concerns, they had mostly positive expectations for human-AI partnerships, the quality of life in 2030, and the future of work, health care and education:
AI will be integrated into most aspects of life, producing new efficiencies and enhancing human capacities: Experts predicted that the benefits of AI will continue to expand and “do more things for more people.”
AI will optimize and augment people’s lives: Experts hope that AI will help save lives “via health advances and the reduction of risks and of poverty…” as well as “spur innovation and broaden opportunities,… and increase individuals’ overall satisfaction with life.”
On work: “Some predict new work will emerge or solutions will be found, while others have deep concerns about massive job losses and an unraveling society.”
On health care: “Great expectations for many lives saved, extended and improved, mixed with worries about data abuses and a divide between ‘the haves and have-nots’”
On education: “High hopes for advances in adaptive and individualized learning, but some doubt that there will be any significant progress and worry over digital divide.”
Finally, thought leaders warned that our expanding reliance on technological systems will only go well "if close attention is paid to how these tools, platforms and networks are engineered, distributed and updated.”