Advances in AI are coming faster than our ability to think through the consequences.

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SwissCognitiveThe list of existential threats to mankind on which wealthy philanthropists have focused their attention — catastrophic climate change, pandemics and the like — has a new addition: artificially intelligent machines that turn against their human creators.

Artificial intelligence (AI) could pose a threat “greater than the danger of nuclear warheads, by a lot”, according to Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind electric car maker Tesla. As the author James Barrat put it, a superhuman intelligence, equipped with the ability to learn but without the ability to empathise, might well be Our Final Invention.

Even if the machines are not going to kill us, there are plenty of reasons to worry AI will be used for ill as well as for good, and that advances in the field are coming faster than our ability to think through the consequences.

Between facial recognition and autonomous drones, AI’s potential impact on warfare is already obvious, stirring employee concern at Google and other pioneers in the field. Faced with an internal revolt, Google last year said it would drop much of its work for the Pentagon and withhold AI technology that could be used for weapons. That may restore harmony at the Googleplex, but it is hardly likely to end the AI arms race. Russian president Vladimir Putin puts it this way: “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.”

Other fears include whether AI algorithms are reinforcing racial stereotypes, gender biases and other prejudices as a result of a lack of diversity among scientists in the field — and of what happens to society when robots can do most jobs. All of which is to say promoting debate on the ethics and consequences of AI, and nudging the science, business and regulation of AI in the right direction, seems a worthy use of philanthropic dollars. It is also fascinating — an often underestimated reason for picking a philanthropic cause.

Explaining his gift of $150m to Oxford university, part of which will go to creating an Institute for Ethics in AI, Steve Schwarzman, founder of private equity house Blackstone, told Forbes in June he wanted “to be part of this dialogue, to try and help the system regulate itself so innocent people who’re just living their lives don’t end up disadvantaged. If you start dislocating people, and your tax revenues go down, your social costs go up, your voting patterns change . . . you could endanger the underpinnings of liberal democracies.” Last year he wrote an even bigger cheque to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create a new centre for AI research.

Those donations together make Schwarzman probably AI’s largest donor. Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, Nicolas Berggruen, the financier once known as the “homeless billionaire” before he settled in Los Angeles, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman are among the others. In this field, however, there is a limit to the power of philanthropy. […]

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