Will robots help or harm? It's time for 'big thinking,' AI experts warn

'We seem to be sleep-walking into this,' one robotics expert said

Robots have considerable potential to make human lives better, but only if humans start doing some "big thinking" now about how to ensure that AI's effect is beneficial.

That was the view of artificial intelligence experts during a panel discussion on the topic Tuesday at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Germany.

"We've got to take responsibility for the technology we create," said Noel Sharkey, an emeritus professor of AI and robotics at the University of Sheffield as well as chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control and cofounder of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. "We've got to do some big thinking here."

The number of robots in use around the world is skyrocketing, Sharkey said. Whereas industrial robots have been around for some time, service robots are a relatively new category. In 2014, 4.7 million service robots were sold for personal domestic use, and 38 million are expected by 2018, he said.

Though the potential is exciting, humans really have no idea what these numbers will bring. For instance, "we don't know that self-driving cars will save lives," Sharkey said. "I wish the companies working on them would stop saying that."

In military and police settings, the potential dangers are particularly concerning.

"I see no way we can guarantee compliance with the laws of war," Sharkey said. "It's a real worry for international security -- we have no idea what will happen."

All in all, "we seem to be sleep walking into this the same way we did into the internet," he said.

Humans must think broadly about what control we want to cede to machines, potentially codifying the results in a new "bill of human technological rights."

"Young people, we're relying on you," Sharkey said. "This is your future. Think about responsibility, think about what you're creating, and do something about it."

Legal issues and algorithmic transparency were also among the topics addressed during the panel discussion.

Asked whether machines will one day surpass humans in intelligence, experts had diverse points of view.

"Some of us may stay on top while others do not," suggested Thomas Dreier, director of the Center for Applied Legal Studies at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

"When the next evolution happens, we won't be on top, I guarantee it," said Raj Reddy, former founding director of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute and winner of the Turing Award in 1994.

One thing panelists largely agreed on, however, is that robots won't be "taking over" anytime soon.

AI can win at a few select things, such as chess and Go, but so far there's no sign of any kind of more generalized superiority. "It's not something I lose sleep over, I can tell you that," Sharkey said.

"The bigger issue is that humans and AI will outperform humans working alone -- that's the one we need to pay attention to," said Jim Hendler, professor of computer, web and cognitive sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "The existential threat is not AI, it's not using the AI we have correctly."

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