Five ways AI might help the world: ‘We can heal all diseases, stable our environment, and put an end to poverty.’

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Five ways AI might help the world

It still needs to be made clear how the power and possibilities of AI will play out. Here are the best-case scenarios for how it might help us develop new drugs, give up dull jobs and live long, healthy lives

Recent advances such as Open AI’s GPT-4 chatbot have awakened the world to how sophisticated artificial intelligence has become and how rapidly the field is advancing. Could this powerful new technology help save the world? We asked five leading AI researchers to lay out their best-case scenarios.

‘More intelligence will lead to better everything.’

In 1999, I predicted that computers would pass the Turing test [and be indistinguishable from human beings] by 2029. Stanford University found that alarming and organized an international conference – experts from all over the world. They mostly agreed that it would happen, but not in 30 years – in 100 years. This poll has been taken every year since 1999. My guess has remained 2029, and the consensus view of AI experts is now also 2029.

Everything’s going to improve. We can cure cancer, heart disease, and so on, using simulated biology – and extend our lives. The average life expectancy was 30 in 1800 and 48 in 1900; it’s now pushing 80. I predict that we’ll reach “longevity escape velocity” by 2029. As you go forward a year, you’re using up a year of your longevity, but you’re actually getting back about three or four months from scientific progress. So, you haven’t lost a year but eight or nine months. By 2029, you’ll get back that entire year of scientific progress. As we go past 2029, you’ll get back more than a year.

Most movies about AI have an “us versus them” mentality, but that’s not the case. This is not an alien invasion of intelligent machines; it results from our efforts to make our infrastructure and way of life more intelligent. It’s part of human endeavor. We merge with our devices. Ultimately, they will extend who we are. Our mobile phone, for example, makes us more intelligent and able to communicate with each other. It’s part of us already. It might not be connected to you, but nobody leaves home without one. It’s like half your brain.

If the wrong people take control of AI, that could not be good for the rest of us, so we really need to keep pace with that, which we are doing. But we already have things that have nothing to do with AI, such as atomic weapons, that could destroy everyone. So it’s not making life more dangerous. And it can give us some tools to prevent people from harming us.

The rate of change will be difficult for some people. The railways changed the US, but it took decades; this is changing it in months. If we were in 1900 and I went through all the different ways, people made money, and I said: ‘All of these will be obsolete in 100 years,’ people would go: ‘Oh, my God! There’s going to be no jobs.’ But we have more jobs today – in areas that were only invented in the last few decades. That will continue.

We’ve made significant progress, but some people are still desperate. More intelligence will lead to better everything. We will have the possibility of everybody having a perfect life.

Ray Kurzweil, computer scientist, inventor, author and futurist

‘We can use AI tools right now to help fight climate change.’

Everyone wants a silver bullet to solve climate change; unfortunately, there isn’t one. But there are lots of ways AI can help fight climate change. While there is no single big thing that AI will do, there are many medium-sized things.

The first role AI can play in climate action is distilling raw data into useful information – taking big datasets, which would take too much time for a human to process, and pulling information out in real-time to guide policy or private-sector action, for example, taking satellite imagery and picking out where deforestation is happening, how biodiversity is changing, and where coastal communities are at risk from flooding. These kinds of tools are already being used by organizations worldwide, from the UN to insurance companies, and we’re working to scale them up and improve them.

The second role is optimizing complicated systems – such as the heating and cooling system in a building, where there are many controls that an algorithm can operate efficiently. Smart thermostats have become mainstream in our homes; now, we see that in skyscrapers and factories. Many companies are improving energy efficiency, and a lot of progress is still to be made, especially in industries such as steel and cement, which are often resistant to adopting new technologies.

The next theme is forecasting. AI can’t predict something big-picture like what’s going to happen to the economy – but forecasts make sense for narrow problems with lots of data, such as what the power demand is going to be at a particular time or what power is going to be available based on the sun and the wind, forecasting how a storm is going to move, or the productivity of crops based upon the weather.

Thinking of AI as a futuristic tool that will lead to immeasurable good or harm is a distraction from the ways we are using it now

The fourth theme is speeding up scientific simulations, such as climate and weather modeling. We have excellent climate models, but sometimes they can take months to run, even on supercomputers, and that is an obstacle. We understand climate change very well, but that doesn’t mean we know exactly what will happen at each point. So, having faster climate models can aid local and regional responses.

AI in climate action isn’t about what computers can do in the future – we can’t trust some speculative future technology to rescue us. Climate change is already killing people, and many more people will die, even in a best-case scenario, but we get to decide now just how bad it gets. Action taken decades from now is much less valuable than action taken soon. Thinking of AI as a futuristic tool that will lead to immeasurable good or harm is a distraction from the ways we can and are using AI tools right now and what we can do to align them with what’s best for society.

David Rolnick, assistant professor, and Canada CIFAR AI Chair, McGill University School of Computer Science, Montreal

‘There is going to be an amazing revolution in healthcare.’

There is a rapid transformation in the pharmaceutical industry and university research, where they’re shifting to the use of AI to help discover new molecules and new drugs that would have fewer side effects and that would help us cure diseases that currently we don’t know how to heal, including cancer, potentially.

AI can be helpful here because the body is very complicated. Even a single cell is exceptionally complex: you have 20,000 genes, and they all interact with each other. Biotechnology has progressed to the point where we can simultaneously measure all the genes’ activity in a single cell. While we collect vast quantities of data, the amount of data is so large that humans are unable to read it. But because machines can, they can build models of how your cells work and how they could change under different circumstances that cause disease. So, you can see what happens if you intervene; what will be the effect if you introduce a pollutant or a drug?

Many academics are working in these areas right now. One of the research programs in my group is about using AI to discover drugs for infectious diseases, which don’t get a lot of attention from pharma – because they’re not profitable, they’re happening in developing countries, or they’re scarce, such as pandemics. There is also the issue of antimicrobial resistance – where mutations of microbes mean that our current drugs are no longer effective. This is like a catastrophe dangling in front of our noses; it could come anytime.

This is more than just something happening in academia. Now dozens of startups have been created at the intersection of AI and drug discovery, broadly speaking. These have been injected with billions of dollars while pharmaceutical companies are beefing up their machine-learning departments.

Having better models could be a real game-changer. The high cost of drug discovery is that you must try many things that don’t work. Trying one drug isn’t that expensive, but usually, there’s something that goes wrong. Developing a new drug costs a billion dollars; it could easily be ten times less with these advances. It will probably take years before people see an effect, but I am pretty sure it will be a fantastic revolution in terms of healthcare.

Yoshua Bengio, professor of computer science, the University of Montreal; scientific director, Mila – Quebec AI Institute

‘AI could radically accelerate the process of technological progress itself.’

If we figured out how people will share in the wealth that AI unlocks, then I think we could end up in a world where people don’t have to work to eat and instead take on projects because they are meaningful to them. I often use the analogy of children. They do a lot of things because they enjoy them, and not just because they’re the best person in the world at them. They paint and draw, and they have a lot of fun; I paint and draw, even though [AI image generator] Midjourney is way better at making pictures than me. Similarly, since the 90s, we have had computer programs that can beat humans at chess, but lots of people still play chess.

Suppose you have intelligent AI systems accessible to people. In that case, it’s as if everybody has access to an infinitely patient teacher, so you could imagine training these AI systems to be an interface between humans and other humans.

We may choose not to have AI replaced. Those will probably have to do with the governance of our society and our processes of trying to figure out what are good things to do with the world. How do we manage our resources? What are the laws we’re going to put in place? What is the way to treat people fairly?

And, if you imagine, for example, the possibility of expansion into space with technology invented by AI systems, we would have choices: should we do that? And what would we do with the resources we unlock if we expand into space? AI systems could help us think that through, but we want those decisions to be made by people.

When you zoom out and look at where humanity has come from, on the scale of centuries and millennia, freedom, health, and equality have been improving over time, and better technology has played a massive part in that. Truly advanced AI systems could continue that story – they could be more than just another technology; they could automate and radically accelerate the process of technological progress itself. In just a couple of decades, humanity could get to the advanced future that feels like hundreds or thousands of years away. This is not at all guaranteed, but I think it’s within reach if we get this right.

Ajeya Cotra, senior research analyst on AI alignment, Open Philanthropy; editor, Planned Obsolescence

‘We can flourish for billions of years, not just for the next election cycle.

The favorable, optimistic scenario is that we responsibly develop superintelligence in a way that allows us to control it and benefit from it. The “control” part is, I think, more hopeful than many people assume. There is a field of computer science called formal verification, where you come up with rigorous mathematical proof that a program will always do what it’s supposed to. You can even create a “proof-carrying code”; it works the opposite way to a virus checker. If a virus checker can prove that the code you are going to run is malicious, it won’t run it; with proof-carrying code, only if the code can confirm that it will do what you want it to do will your hardware run it. This is the mechanism we need to ensure advanced AI is safe.

It could be the most significant empowerment moment in human history.

We can’t do this yet with GPT-4 or other robust AI systems because those systems are not written in a human programming language; they are a giant artificial neural network, and we have almost no clue how they work. But there is a very active research field called mechanistic interpretability. The goal is to take these black-box neural networks and figure out how they work. If this field makes so much progress that we can use AI to extract the knowledge from other AI and see what it has learned, we could reimplement it in some different type of computational architecture – some proof-carrying code – that you can trust. Then you can still use the power of neural networks to discover and learn, but now you can trust something that’s way smarter than you. Then what are we going to do with it? Well, the sky’s the limit.

We can cure all diseases, stabilize our climate, eliminate poverty, etc. We can flourish for billions of years for the next election cycle. We have been on this planet for more than 100,000 years, and most of the time, we have been like a leaf blowing around in the wind, without much control of our destiny, just trying not to starve or get eaten. Science, technology, and human intelligence have made us the captains of our ships. I find that inspiring. If we can build and control superintelligence, we can quickly go from being limited by our stupidity to being defined by the laws of physics. It could be the most significant empowerment moment in human history.

Max Tegmark, a professor of physics and AI researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology


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