The Hollywood versions of malevolent killer robots trying to terminate the human race are probably not going to show up any time soon, one prominent computer researcher said during a Saturday South by Southwest session in Austin.
But powerful new technologies that come under the umbrella term -- Artificial Intelligence, or AI -- are going to create profound challenges for humans in the foreseeable future in the way that they work, the way they drive and the way that they participate in democratic forms of government.
Researchers and engineers have been working with AI for decades. Apple's voice-activated assistant Siri, for example, uses voice recognition and other technologies to help its iPhone users. Google's self-driving car project is another example. And investors are pouring money into more AI-related startup companies.
But Eric Horvitz, managing director of Microsoft Research, said during his SXSW talk that AI is still in its Wright brothers stage of infancy. The technology will power applications that touch more people's lives in more profound ways. That is already the case in medicine, where robots are assisting surgeons with complex operations, and where researchers are investigating customized cancer drugs that are tuned to patients' unique DNA structures.
AI will remake the way Americans work and communicate and travel and receive health care, but not every change will be positive.
Steady advances in machine vision and AI software, could transform the trucking industry with self-driving semis, Horvitz said. But it also could throw a few million Americans out of work. (Alltrucking.com estimates that this country has 3.5 million professional truck drivers,)
And what about criminals who use AI to hack into automated driving systems to create mayhem? Those sorts of dangers are just starting to be addressed.
Horvitz frowns on the term "doomsday scenario" for AI, but he acknowledges that prominent researchers and technologies, including scientist Stephen Hawking and Tesla founder Elon Musk, have voiced potential dire consequences from the technology on humans.
Six tech industry giants -- Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Google and Facebook -- have formed the Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society, which aims to promote ethical and technical standards for AI development and to minimize adverse consequences.
The challenge ahead to protect against potentially dangerous aspects of AI is a big one, Horvitz said, and will last for generations.
"The technology is really in our hands as humans and it always will be," he said, noting that the work involves thinking beyond technology to ethics, economics and social impact.
"It is a rich, deep social and technical challenge," Horvitz said. "It is just a fascinating area of effort."
News on Open Source is free and unlimited. Access to the rest of 512tech.com comes with an American-Statesman digital subscription, which also includes myStatesman.com and the ePaper edition. Subscribe at statesman.com/subscribe.