A few weeks ago I was in Athens participating in the Obama Foundation’s Leaders program, where I had the privilege of meeting with more than 100 people from all corners of the globe who are driving change in their respective fields in industry, the public sector and civil society. During the program I was also able to discuss the profound impact that artificial intelligence (AI) will have on our society with former president Barack Obama. He considers it a top priority. I, too, am clear that we need to act now and lay the groundwork to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks of AI.
I have been passionate about this topic for a long time. Almost 20 years ago, I created an AI system based on neural networks that could write poetry in the style of William Blake. As Chief Data Scientist at the UN, before the pandemic hit, we trained an AI capable of writing speeches like those delivered by presidents of member states at the UN General Assembly. We wanted to warn of the impending societal challenges posed by this technology. Many of these challenges are becoming a reality faster than expected.
The conversation with Barack Obama transported me back to 2011, when I was able to watch him live from the hall of the UN General Assembly, where he was delivering a speech making the case that digital technologies empower ordinary people. It was the Arab Spring. Looking back, we were probably too optimistic and inaction during the 2010s from an ethical, policy and regulatory standpoint around social media and data privacy has led to surveillance capitalism, polarization, mental health issues and even promoted human rights violations.
With the recent advances of generative AI, a platform that is phagocytizing our digital planet much faster than the previous technological wave, we need to act quickly, and we cannot overlook the risks: the need for reliable and unbiased technologies, drawing red lines and avoiding the concentration of power that can increase inequality and condemn more people to irrelevance. Not only that, words can become weapons, and today’s chatbots could be considered the equivalent of the “Kalashnikovs of disinformation,” as Marta Peirano puts it. AI is power, and narratives generated with the help of algorithms threaten to further destabilize and unbalance our society.
In any case, beyond mitigating the risks — I am optimistic that we will succeed — there will be a systemic transformation. The AI genie is out of the lamp and is not going back in. Just as information technologies like paper, the printing press and the internet changed our world, AI will change our society and the role of many of us within it. New tools give us unprecedented opportunities, for example, to accelerate and democratize access to personalized and precision medicine, as we do at Spotlab. Not only healthcare, but also education, engineering and design will experience a kind of Cambrian explosion of unprecedented advances and creativity. Tools that can perform cognitive tasks at almost zero cost will enable an increase in productivity that, if well managed, will improve the lives of many people.
Where to start? By trying it. Talking about it is not the same as experiencing it. Companies, public organizations, associations, NGOs, educational institutions... All actors should make an effort to try these tools to understand first-hand why they can be useful for our mission - and what can go wrong. We should not wait for anyone to do it for us, as almost everyone is at square one. In this socio-economic AI tsunami, we are at the point where the water has receded, just before the giant wave arrives, and we must be prepared.
The responsibility for managing this “AI transition,” where social interactions and the knowledge economy will be mediated by AI, cannot fall solely on technology companies and governments — regulators and policy makers — but must be undertaken in parallel by society as a whole. Red lines and regulatory frameworks will be just the beginning.
AI is a tool that will be used to offer new products and services, to build accessible cities, to fight climate change, to map biodiversity, to revolutionize science, to empower the imagination of artists, to protect and reinvent our democracies… in short, to educate our children and future generations. Whatever your role and sector, now is the time to experiment, to participate in the discussion, to sit at the table and shape a more humane AI that will help us fulfill our mission.
Miguel Luengo-Oroz was Chief Data Scientist at the UN until 2022 and is the current CEO of Spotlab
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