Growing up in Generation AI

Imagine a five-year-old watching Mum talking to Siri, and Dad talking to Alexa, on a daily basis — what must she think of such interactions? Children nowadays witness computers that seem like they have a mind of their own — and even a personality with which to engage. It can be taken for granted that their perception of machines, and thus of the world itself, differs a lot from our own.

Artificial intelligence is one of the most promising areas of tech today, if not even the one that is likely to entail the most striking changes in our way of living, the way our economy works and how society functions. Thanks to enormous amounts of data, coupled with compute power to analyze it, technology companies are making strides in AI that resembles something of a gold rush.

New approaches, including use of deep neural networks, have led to groundbreaking achievements in AI, some of which weren’t predicted to happen for another decade. Google defeating the world champion at the ancient game of Go is just one prominent example. Many more are to be expected, including advances in deep learning combined with reasoning and planning — or even emulating creativity and artwork.

Machine learning approaches are leading to AIs being implemented in everything from medical imaging to stock trading. They are allowing machines to think in more human ways, while still bringing to bear the enormous benefits of big data.

In 2016, many believe we are at the beginning of the next generation of computing — an “AI revolution.” Assuming the Age of Artificial Intelligence will succeed the Age of Mobile, what does that mean for the children who will succeed “Generation I”? What will it mean to grow up in the Age of AI? And how can we as a society facilitate the transition, ensuring at the same time that this progress will be put to good use?

Current debates on automation already demonstrate the conflict we are in. Whether it is self-driving cars, factory automation or robots doing surgery, there is a large swathe of the population that approaches the topic with a sense of unease — even suspicion.

The idea that a machine could remotely replicate a human at most jobs seems outlandish to many of us because we’ve witnessed their clunky rise to prominence. Adults alive today can still recall a world where computers did not exist in everyday life, and witnessed all the early growing pains. It is a generation that suffered chunky user manuals, crash screens and the Y2K bug. How does that compare to a child’s perception of the robust, intuitive and reliable systems in place today?

Children very soon might grow up viewing machines as sentient beings rather than feats of engineering.

But facts can’t be denied, and even though watched with skepticism by some, the insight that AI is improving processes and increasing safety and efficiency is winning recognition. The day will come when not handing over the steering wheel to a machine will be considered careless, if not outright irresponsible. From a legal standpoint, precedence was set 41 years ago in the 1975 case of Klein v. U.S., where a pilot was deemed negligent for choosing to disengage autopilot and take manual control. How long until people are charged with similar negligence when deciding to disengage autopilot in a car and choose to drive manually?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated they will remove the “beta” label from Tesla’s own Autopilot feature once it demonstrates 10X safer performance than the U.S. vehicle average. At that point, it will be hard to deny that drivers still operating a car manually are behaving irresponsibly by eschewing an option statistically 10 times safer. Generation AI won’t need that kind of persuasion to let machines take over.

The acceptance of automation will lead to fundamental changes in the way society views production and labor. If Generation AI embraces automation in all facets of life, the economy needs to, and will, adapt. Questions regarding redistribution of wealth, private enterprise or concepts like a universal living wage need to be addressed. The technological intellectual struggle will be followed by what may be an even more challenging one: the philosophical task of adapting or replacing the economic system that is rooted in the writings of a man born two centuries prior to the computer even being invented.

Just as Generation I demonstrated innate acceptance of iPads and smartphones, Generation AI will take for granted machines with advanced AI: machines with minds and a (perceived) ability to think on their own, and even machines equipped with artificial empathy and charisma.

While society will have to answer the big underlying questions, Generation AI will have to figure out how to embrace AI in their private lives. Communication with chatbots, or the use of relationship simulators, sits on the realm of creepy today, but those who grow up with parents talking to Siri on the phone and Alexa in the kitchen will have fewer reservations about eschewing fickle human relationships for simulated companionship.

Ideas about rights and protections for robots may not seem so odd to future generations. Of course, along with rights come responsibilities. Will we one day see a car accused of manslaughter? Or a personal assistant charged with criminal misconduct? And just before you scoff: It wasn’t so long ago that our own legal system was putting monkeys on trial.

Children very soon might grow up viewing machines as sentient beings rather than feats of engineering. The philosophical debates about what makes a “true AI” will be a moot point to them, because they are growing up in a world where machines interact with them in (only for us, surprisingly) human ways — long before they have any inkling of what actually makes AI tick. Realistic simulations of personality and empathy will make it much easier to anthropomorphize machines.

Our ancient ancestors who witnessed the invention of the wheel probably thought it was rather useful, but had no inkling of the critical importance such an invention had on so many subsequent technological advances. Though we seem to have the glimpse of an idea that AI will impact future generations in a way barely imaginable, only time will tell how society will meet those challenges and adapt to a world where humans aren’t necessarily the only intelligent beings on this planet.