alex_sandy_pentland's picture
Professor of Computer Science, MIT; Director, MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs; Author, Social Physics
The Global Artificial Intelligence Is Here

The Global Artificial Intelligence (GAI) has already been born. Its eyes and ears are the digital devices all around us: credit cards, land use satellites, cell phones, and of course the pecking of billions of people using the Web. Its central brain is rather like a worm at the moment: nodes that combine some sensors and some effectors, but the whole is far from what you would call a coordinated intelligence.

Already many countries are using this infant nervous system to shape people's political behavior and "guide" the national consensus: China's great firewall, its siblings in Iran and Russia, and of course both major political parties in the US. The national intelligence and defense agencies form a quieter, more hidden part of the GAI, but despite being quiet they are the parts that control the fangs and claws. More visibly, companies are beginning to use this newborn nervous system to shape consumer behavior and increase profits.

While the GAI is newborn, it has very old roots: the fundamental algorithms and programming of the emerging GAI have been created by the ancient Guilds of law, politics, and religion. This is a natural evolution because creating a law is just specifying an algorithm, and governance via bureaucrats is how you execute the program of law. Most recently newcomers such as merchants, social crusaders, and even engineers, have been daring to add their flourishes to the GAI. The results of all these laws and programming are an improvement over Hammurabi, but we are still plagued by lack of inclusion, transparency, and accountability, along with poor mechanisms for decision-making and information gathering.

However in the last decades the evolving GAI has begun use digital technologies to replace human bureaucrats. Those with primitive programming and mathematical skills, namely lawyers, politicians, and many social scientists, have become fearful that they will lose their positions of power and so are making all sorts of noise about the dangers of allowing engineers and entrepreneurs to program the GAI. To my ears the complaints of the traditional programmers sound rather hollow given their repeated failures across thousands of years.

If we look at newer, digital parts of the GAI we can see a pattern. Some new parts are saving humanity from the mistakes of the traditional programmers: land use space satellites alerted us to global warming, deforestation, and other environmental problems, and gave us the facts to address these harms. Similarly, statistical analyses of healthcare use, transportation, and work patterns have given us a world-wide network that can track global pandemics and guide public health efforts. On the other hand, some of the new parts, such as the Great Firewall, the NSA, and the US political parties, are scary because of the possibility that a small group of people can potentially control the thoughts and behavior of very large groups of people, perhaps without them even knowing they are being manipulated.

What this suggests is that it is not the Global Artificial Intelligence itself that is worrisome; it is how it is controlled. If the control is in the hands of just a few people, or if the GAI is independent of human participation, then the GAI can be the enabler of nightmares. If, on the other hand, control is in the hands of a large and diverse cross-section of people, then the power of the GAI is likely to be used to address problems faced by the entire human race. It is to our common advantage if the GAI becomes a distributed intelligence with a large and diverse set of humans providing guidance.

But why build a new sort of GAI at all? Creation of an effective GAI is critical because today the entire human race faces many extremely serious problems. The ad-hoc GAI we have developed over the last four thousand years, mostly made up of politicians and lawyers executing algorithms and programs developed centuries ago, is not only failing to address these serious problems, it is threatening to extinguish us.

For humanity as a whole to first achieve and then sustain an honorable quality of life, we need to carefully guide the development of our GAI. Such a GAI might be in the form of a re-engineered United Nations that uses new digital intelligence resources to enable sustainable development. But because existing multinational governance systems have failed so miserably, such an approach may require replacing most of today's bureaucracies with "artificial intelligence prosthetics", i.e., digital systems that reliably gather accurate information and ensure that resources are distributed according to plan.

We already see this digital evolution improving the effectiveness of military and commercial systems, but it is interesting to note that as organizations use more digital prosthetics, they also tend to evolve towards more distributed human leadership. Perhaps instead of elaborating traditional governance structures with digital prosthetics, we will develop a new, better types of digital democracy.

No matter how a new GAI develops, two things are clear. First, without an effective GAI achieving an honorable quality of life for all of humanity seems unlikely. To vote against developing a GAI is to vote for a more violent, sick world. Second, the danger of a GAI comes from concentration of power. We must figure out how to build broadly democratic systems that include both humans and computer intelligences. In my opinion, it is critical that we start building and testing GAIs that both solve humanity's existential problems and which ensure equality of control and access. Otherwise we may be doomed to a future full of environmental disasters, wars, and needless suffering.