Silicon Valley.

O'SHEA: The Mystery that is Artificial Intelligence

Thinking machines are being constructed in Silicon Valley by a few teams of men with a scattering of women that could solve many of the problems of the universe or destroy the world in a few minutes.

One top AI engineer stated recently, “we are creating God. We are developing conscious machines.” These exuberant words were not uttered in a boastful manner, rather they were made as a phlegmatic statement describing his unusual line of work.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

Keep in mind we are talking about mini-machines comprised of billions of microscopic transistors and various wires that zig-zag and are interconnected in incomprehensible ways.

We are still in the early stages of these developments, but already stories can be written in the exact style of Ernest Hemingway or the King James version of the Bible. Then there is a promising growth in new medications and in people using AI therapists instead of humans.

The Irish Department of Education is re-considering a major decision that would empower classroom teachers to provide up to one third of their students’ grades in public examinations based on essays and research completed as part of class assignments.

However, there is now a complicating factor: Chatbot, an AI creation, can instantly transmit fine research and writing on almost any topic. A little student camouflage here and there would leave teachers in the unenviable role of accepting or rejecting the authenticity of such work that could bolster or diminish the student’s final grade.

There are dating apps which allow you to meet a robotic AI partner. I can’t imagine what the introductory conversation of this pair would be like.

AI is already being used for political misinformation, creating deep fake videos and sham audio recordings. The U.S. military is exploring AI use in warfare leading eventually, they hope, to the creation of autonomous killer robots. Or consider their plans for creating through genetic engineering a breed of super soldiers lacking normal levels of empathy. Just imagine!

Larry Page, the founder of one of the biggest companies in this AI area, one which employs hundreds of engineers building artificial intelligence machines, believes that AI will become so formidable that someday it won’t need us dumb interfering humans anymore, so it will - and in Page’s view, it should - get rid of us. Only the fittest survive and as humans fall further behind every month, according to Page, their demise is inevitable.

He is not the only one taking such a pessimistic view of the future. Max Tegmark, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, predicts that we are facing a 50% chance of complete obliteration by artificial intelligence in the next 100 years.

In July, a group of experts, including leaders in nuclear war technology and bioweapons, concluded that there is a 20% chance of a catastrophe because of AI and a 6% possibility of an extinction event that will obliterate everybody in the next few decades.

Nate Soares claims our attention because he heads a non-profit organization called the Machine Intelligence Research Institute which focuses on identifying potential existential risks from what is named AGI for Artificial General Intelligence.

He has concluded that the people leading the development of AGI are completely out of touch with the serious dangers they are playing with. They are driven by a strong business motivation to be first in the AGI discovery game, but they are oblivious to the moral consequences of their activities. Soares’ ominous opinion predicts that if he had a child today, he would not expect her to see her eighth birthday.

These dark predictions by Soares, Tegmark, Page and others cannot be taken lightly, but there are also far more positive auguries for AI. Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of the highly rated Wired magazine, contends that the chances of human extinction are very low and that such a global-ending scenario is a long way down the road.

However, even if there is just a one percent possibility of ending life on the planet, surely prudent leaders should abandon such a perilous project. However, thousands of top engineers in multiple countries are already deep into the research and development, so even if somehow Silicon Valley or similar centers in other countries were shut down the show would go on elsewhere.

Elon Musk, who is knee-deep in the business vagaries of the AI revolution, worries that without serious built-in safeguards, artificial intelligence systems might replace humans, making our species irrelevant, or even extinct. His fears drew criticism from some colleagues who accused him of being a "speciest," a new term conveying criticism of people who elevate one species over others.

Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut rightly sees an important spiritual dimension to these AI developments. “When you start to outsource the bulk of human creativity to machines, there comes with that a human rot. If we stop existing in the way we live today, and transfer all our functions to machines, that becomes a fairly empty existence.”

Marc Andreessen, a billionaire venture capitalist, heavily invested in AI companies, assured people in a recent article that the coming machines will only make us more creative. He compares the major changes already underway to the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, destroying some jobs, but creating new superior ones.

The Industrial Revolution certainly came with mixed blessings. It fostered abundant economic growth and, for some, improved living standards. However, it introduced appalling working conditions, including child labor, and it caused deadly pollution of the air and water leading directly to massive health and environmental problems. Wealth disparity and social unrest multiplied in every city. And, most importantly in this comparison, the Industrial Revolution extended over a century while the AI revolution is predicted to take five years at most.

Sam Altman, considered the god of the AI world, claims that the new technology will bring the world prosperity and wealth beyond our puny imaginations, and his company OpenAI is considered a leader in the field.

According to Altman, we will soon be contemplating new and positive horizons in dealing with climate change and all its related weather crises. People, according to these new world optimistic scenarios, can expect to live to 150 years or even 200. No talk yet of matching the biblical Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, who lasted 969 years!

Advocates of AI point out that the big increases in productivity that will inevitably come with this new revolution should end poverty. From this perspective, we will no longer be dealing with the nine million impoverished children currently living in degrading conditions in the United States. However, our record in wealth distribution does not justify optimism that the new money will flow to the needy.

All the experts in the AI field, including critics who, with good reason, fear the dangers ahead, say that the next five years will usher in massive lifestyle changes for all humanity.

Gerry O’Shea blogs at