The Borg, Pandora’s Box, or something better? Let’s not fear AI but get excited by its incredible possibilities
Earlier this month, Geoffrey Hinton – the ‘godfather’ of AI – quit Google, in part referencing the potential risks of digital intelligence, and the existential threat of “things more intelligent than us taking control”. He spoke of digital systems (such as natural language processing models like ChatGPT) being able to learn separately but share their knowledge instantly, which immediately made me think of the Borg in Star Trek.
Obviously this is cause for extensive consideration, and of course we need to critically consider the AI space and the types of people that are leading it – particularly as tech is a sector that’s dominated by men and white people (for example, men hold 73% of all tech jobs, and that percentage increases at leadership level), leading to skewed representation. This, and the fact that tools like ChatGPT rely on existing data and content to train them, means that there are inherent biases with AI that systematically produce errors or inaccuracies that could affect decision-making, or disadvantage particular groups of people.
For example, back in 2018 Amazon was found to be using a secret AI recruiting tool that was biased against women, having been trained on CVs from predominantly male candidates. In 2019 researchers discovered that an algorithm used in US hospitals to predict which patients would require extra healthcare favoured white patients over black patients, amplifying long-standing racial disparities in medicine. And last year the Lensa image editing app – which can generate ‘stylised’ (and often highly sexualised) portraits of users – was criticised for its inherent misogyny.
As Dr Hinton has cautioned, we don’t know what we’ve unleashed, and of course we need to address these biases and mitigate against inadvertently developing a Borg-like hive mind in the real world.
But I’m so excited about the possibilities that AI offers. As an individual who’s grown up on sci-fi and Star Trek, and who is happy with taking risks, I try and focus on seeing opportunity everywhere. Radical change is inevitable: the technology is already there, and Pandora’s Box has already been opened. But let’s step past the politics of it, the jargon, and the fear-mongering in the press.
Yes, AI is currently biased – as are humans. We live in an inequitable world: as AI expert Meredith Broussard said in a recent Guardian interview, “racism, sexism and ableism are systemic problems that are baked into our technological systems because they’re baked into society”. But let’s figure out how to deal with these biases and harness this incredible moment in time. There are hundreds of new jobs that will be created through the use and integration of AI technology – why aren’t media outlets talking about these opportunities? Focus on AI’s potential, and the hope that it will remove a lot of the current time-consuming drudgery to free us up to think more creatively and strategically.
Already I’ve used it to provide indicative budgets for my projects, analyse emails for tone, and rewrite copy to sound more formal. I’ve used it to structure blog posts (NB not this one, honest). These are things that I never would have had the time to do before. As a small business owner, for me it’s akin to having a research or office assistant working next to me, supporting me at all times. It could be life-changing for small organisations that are often disproportionately overwhelmed with administration.
We have an amazing opportunity here. AI tools could help us crunch and analyse quantum data to provide insights into how best understand refugee trends or even tackle the climate crisis. There’s so much potential if we can put our resources in the right places.
Take your time to fear AI if you need to. But then try and understand it, and think about how we can use it to our best advantage – how we can protect society from the worst of AI, how we can use it to free workers from the shackles of drudgery and enable different types of people to be present in the workforce, how it can provide new ways of working and thinking, and how it can ultimately uplift what we’re doing in society and indeed humanity. That’s certainly where I’d like to put my energy.
Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is currently writing her first book.