IBM is telling Congress not to fear the rise of an AI ‘overlord’

 In Science
The brains behind IBM’s Jeopardy-winning, disease-tracking, weather-mapping Watson supercomputer plan to embark on a lobbying blitz in Washington, D.C., this week, hoping to show federal lawmakers that artificial intelligence isn’t going to kill jobs — or humans.

To hear IBM tell it, much of the recent criticism around machine learning, robotics and other kinds of AI amounts to merely “fear mongering.” The company’s senior vice president for Watson, David Kenny, aims to convey that message to members of Congress beginning with a letter on Tuesday, stressing the “real disaster would be abandoning or inhibiting cognitive technology before its full potential can be realized.”

Labor experts and reams of data released in recent months argue otherwise: They foretell vast economic consequences upon the mass-market arrival of AI, as entire industries are displaced — not just blue-collar jobs like trucking, as self-driving vehicles replace humans at the wheel, but white-collar positions like stock trading too.

Others fear the privacy, security and safety implications as more tasks, from managing the country’s roads to reading patients’ X-ray results, are automated — and the most dire warnings, from the likes of SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, include the potential arrival of “robots capable of destroying mankind.”

But as IBM seeks to advance and sell its AI-driven services, like Watson, the company plans to tell lawmakers those sort of concerns are “fantasy.” Along with a private meeting with some lawmakers near Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Kenny is urging Congress to avoid reacting out of fear and pursuing some proposals, like an idea from Bill Gates to tax robots, as regulators debate how to handle this fast-growing field.

“The impact of AI is evident in the debate about its societal implications — with some fearful prophets envisioning massive job loss, or even an eventual AI ‘Overlord’ that controls humanity,” Kenny wrote. “I must disagree with these dystopian views.”

For IBM, the stakes are high: Watson and the future of what it calls “cognitive technology” are critical to Big Blue’s business. Beyond Watson’s existing work — from aiding in cancer research to funnier tasks, like writing a cookbook — IBM has sought to bring its famed supercomputer to tackle some of the sprawling, data-heavy tasks of the federal government.

In some ways, though, the most vexing challenges facing AI aren’t technological — they’re political.

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Self-driving cars, trucks and drones, for example, can’t just take to the roads and skies without permission from local and federal regulators, which are only just beginning to loosen restrictions on those industries.

Others fear that automation might lead to discrimination: Under President Barack Obama, the White House spent months warning that highly powerful algorithms could share the biases of their authors, leading to unfair treatment of minorities or other disadvantaged communities in everything from obtaining a credit card to buying a house. That’s why his administration in October explicitly urged Congress to help it hire more AI specialists in key government oversight roles.

And more challenging still are the economic implications of AI. It will be up to federal officials — including President Donald Trump or his successors — to grapple with untold numbers of Americans who might someday find themselves out of a job and in need of training in order to find new careers. (Trump’s own Treasury secretary, however, previously has said AI is more than 50 years away from causing such disruptions.)

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