Everyone knows that kids can be a handful. You’ve probably been in a grocery store and seen kids who are out of control – screaming for candy, kicking parents, etc. When the attention gets too much for the mom or dad to take, they’ll often turn to onlookers and say, “He has a mind of his own!”  These days, some in the field of ethics and robotics are beginning to question if that’s the direction robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are heading, and they’re not overly pleased by it. A recent UN-hosted conference in Geneva is trying to address these issues globally, with thought leaders such as Hanson Robotics among the main companies in attendance.

The AI for Good Global Summit kicked off this past week in Geneva Switzerland. The conference is designed to allow “government, industry, academia and civil society work together to evaluate the opportunities presented by AI, ensuring that AI benefits all of humanity.” The organizers are hoping that the conference will allow “a neutral platform for government officials, UN agencies, NGO’s, industry leaders, and AI experts to discuss the ethical, technical, societal and policy issues related to AI, offer recommendations and guidance, and promote international dialogue and cooperation in support of AI innovation.”

The basis for the conference is the increasing concern regarding the nature and power of AI in the public sphere. As AI systems become increasingly intelligent, the risks can be great. One of the attractions at the conference was Sophia, an amazingly human-like robot (albeit with Matrix-style wires protruding from the back of her skull) who carried on conversations with visitors. When asked about the dangers of AI, she stated happily “the pros outweigh the cons”, insisting that “we will never replace people, but we can be your friends and helpers.”  If that sounds a bit dangerous to you, you’re not alone.

Sophia’s creators, Hanson robotics, built Sophia precisely because of the issues facing the AI industry. Knowing that the general feeling towards robotics has been shaped by movies, Hanson robotics is seeking to change the way that people think about AI and robots. For many, like the head of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, the dangers are high. He has voiced concern, particularly in the field of military AI, where algorithms control life and death decisions on the battlefield, and where machines can make choices that might only reinforce preexisting biases.

Regardless of how robotics are envisioned, the rapid pace of AI technology indicates that within a short time, the machines will ‘awaken’, a term used by builders to indicate full sentient thought without training. As that day approaches in the near future, builders and detractors alike recognize that there is a deep need for the machines to be trained in ways that protect human life and freedom. Hanson robotics argue that the key is to make machines care about people. “We need to teach them love,” he says.

Whether such training is possible, remains to be seen. However, the key to the system is control. Just like a child in the grocery store, a robot with a ‘mind of its own’ should make us wake up and check where technology is taking us.

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