Artificial Intelligence – To Fear or Not to Fear

If you are a fan of sci-fi films, then artificial intelligence is something that you would certainly have come across. Terminator, The Matrix and I, Robot are but a few of the blockbusters that focus on sentient machines which threaten human existence.

While Hollywood films of such a nature are often far-fetched and stretch the imagination, they do create perceptions of AI and these are likely to guide how a number of people feel about such technology.

The reality is that the world is developing smarter technology and it is conceivable that humanity will reach a point where artificial intelligence is as commonplace in one’s life as a cell phone is today.

With this in mind, on June 4, 2018, Chevening Scholars descended on the university town of Cambridge, to grace the halls of the Cambridge Union and debate the motion: ‘This house believes that humanity should fear advances in artificial intelligence.’

The union is the oldest debating society in the world and has accommodated a variety of individuals across numerous disciplines such as politics, sport, acting, science, religion activism, among others.

On this particular occasion the honour was reserved for six scholars divided into two teams who were tasked with presenting arguments for and against the motion.

Tony Koutsoumbos, founder and director of The Great Debaters Club was the Chair for the evening’s debate and opened with a welcoming address on the purpose of debating. He spoke on debate’s ability to improve one’s communication skills and engage in different conversations, sharing a variety of ideas.

Before the debate began, Prof Amin Al-Habaibeh from Nottingham Trent University gave a keynote address on artificial intelligence. In his address he distinguished the difference between automation, the ability for technology to do things automatically; and artificial intelligence, where the technology thinks and acts independently. The professor also drew parallels between AI in the fictional media and the real world, where they converge and diverge.

Before the start of the debate, the Chair took a vote to see how many people were for, against, or neutral to the motion. The majority were of the opinion that artificial intelligence should be feared by humanity.

The format of the debate was five minutes for each speaker with the two teams alternating after each one presented.

Scholar Anu Adelakun opened the Chevening Debate as the first speaker for the motion. She pointed out the flaws in technology that exist currently, such as the self-driving cars that have killed people or the fact that face recognition technology could not identify black women’s faces and the impact that this could have in the future.

With the ‘for’ side having laid the foundation for their argument, Indonesian Scholar Dinna Gozali rose to give the position ‘against’ the motion on artificial intelligence. She noted the importance of technology in daily life and how the perceived threats were not drawn from reality.

Mavliuda Dzhaparova, who debated for the motion, spoke on the risks of deep learning in artificial intelligence. How Facebook and other tech companies shut down some of their AI projects due to the programme developing its own language for example.

A rebuttal to that came from Chevening Fellow, Guilong Yan who referred to how AI technology has been used in international security. He added that the deep learning fears were not as critical as society was feared from the feared technological singularity where AI takes control.

Final speaker for the motion was Mohamed Gohary who spoke on the threat that AI possess to jobs and what this will in turn do to the economy and people’s livelihoods.

Fatlum Gashi, the final speaker against the motion, replied by stating that we should not let irrational fear prevent us from developing AI which has the potential to improve people’s lives.

At the end of the debate, a few members of the crowd who had voted for the motion were swayed to the side arguing against the motion, reversing the initial vote. Though the ‘against’ team won, both sides presented valid arguments in the debate and highlighted the importance of such conversations taking place especially as technology advances at a rapid pace.

As was pointed out during the debate, governments have a huge responsibility to draft legislation that will ensure the safety of humanity and help alleviate fears that people might have.