Over six thousand people have voted in the Who’s Afraid of Robots? poll (which will remain open indefinitely). Many people supported this effort (see below), propelling the entry to the frontpage of Digg, as I had hoped, which increased the number of voters and brought a heap of varying opinions on the matter. The survey’s results are quite intriguing.
The poll contained 3 possible answers:
- Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening
- No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening
- I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology
The third option in the poll, on fearing AI usage, has come under minor scrutiny so I’ll briefly touch on my reasons for including it. Most technology has the potential of being misused or abused, either intentionally or because of ignorance. A good example is nuclear power (bomb vs. energy provider). We can assume most people would say they fear malicious use of any technology. If we would’ve had only a yes or no answer — the results would have been obfuscated as it would have been an ambiguous mix of the fear of intelligent machines and the fear of their application.
My goal was to discern between these two, which is important, because the first is a fear of new intelligences and the latter a fear of old ones (ours). Fear of malicious use applies to all technologies, so the third option serves as a filtering mechanism for this ‘general’ fear which could have nothing to do with AI whatsoever. The result is that voters weigh which feeling is overpowering: Fear of our own follies, or fear of new kinds of intelligent beings.
For example, I fear that we might use AI technologies for malicious purposes — but — I feel that the benefits of AI dwarf this fear (see Science: Powered by Intelligence). I don’t fear intelligent machines themselves at all and thus I choose the second option.
Before we continue, a fair disclaimer:
This survey was carried out in an informal manner. The interpretation presented here is the speculative work of one person alone. While giving an indication of opinions within a certain group, they do not guarantee accuracy.
The flat results are as follows:
Do you, for some reason, fear the current and/or future increase of artificial intelligence?
- 16.7% Yes, I find the idea of intelligent machines frightening (1002 votes)
- 27.1% No, I don’t find intelligent machines frightening (1632 votes)
- 56.3% I’m not afraid of intelligent machines, I’m afraid of how humans will use the technology (3366 votes)
The first question we need to address is: Who are these people? Are they young Icelandic academics or old American-south churchgoers? The web connects the entire world which makes it hard to say, but we do know that the majority of the first 6000 votes came from Digg users. I was unable to find surveys on the male to female ratio of Digg users, but Google reveals many claiming 80-90% of the users are male. This, combined with information provided by The Mu Life blog on user age statistics and the Modern Life on nationality, we can loosely speculate that the majority of our voters are American males aged 17-24.
Personally, I find the results a bit surprising. Digg is a technologically oriented site and the users are most likely tech savvy. That being said, 16% of voters fearing AI is quite high. I can only imagine that this percentage would rise sharply if the poll was subjected to people with less knowledge of tech and/or science. The combined fear factor of the poll — 73% — is also too much fear to be considered healthy in my book.
I think many people don’t realize AI’s full potential; imagine AI simply as the robot that brings us beer and washes our dishes (and murders us in our sleep). As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t fear AI technologies nearly as much as I fear the lack of them. We have a lot of problems, and to solve them we need more intelligence:
We’re on the gradient fast track from automation to intelligence, and with every step of the way we’re opening up new possibilites for aiding humanity with all its troubles. By building intelligent machines we’re advancing in all scientific fields, because a machine can help us process scientific data, optimize production, minimize costs and even invent new means by which we can reach our goals. No one can claim there’s enough intelligence in the world. [...] Artificial Intelligence isn’t only an incredibly powerful tool for simulating (and thereby understanding) the vast complexity that is our minds, but, once created the simulations become a tool applicable to a high number of problems from all corners of our existence. Read more…
But, of course, there are some things that we need to consider carefully in these matters, especially regarding military and security applications. Fear can be useful to make us careful, but let’s not have fear paralyze us: The quest for knowledge and scientific advances should prevail.
In closing remarks, there are a few very good points from both sides in the comments thread of the poll article that I recommend reading.
Last but not least, this entertaining and interesting survey couldn’t have happened without the support of the following great people: KuiperCliff, Chip’s Quips, One Man’s Blog, Computer Science Canada blog, Smart Machines, the 9Rules gang, fellow colleagues at CADIA — and many individuals, friends and strangers.