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SYFY WIRE Mrs. Davis

The 'Godfather of AI' quits Google, citing fear of technological harm

Typically, you want to know what a thing will do BEFORE you build it.

By Cassidy Ward
(l-r) Jake McDorman, Betty Gilpin in Mrs. Davis

Betty Gilpin stars as Sister Simone in Damon Lindelof’s latest science fiction adventure, Mrs. Davis (streaming now on Peacock). Sister Simone doesn’t much care for technology, which is a bummer, because the world is under the (benevolent?) control of an artificial intelligence called Mrs. Davis.

Mrs. Davis wants to talk to Sister Simone, but Sister Simone wants Mrs. Davis dead. When the two of them do finally speak, they come to an agreement. Mrs. Davis will delete herself, but only if Sister Simone finds and destroys the Holy Grail. Should be easy. The premise of Mrs. Davis, with sacred relics and ancient holy orders is, admittedly, a little bit tongue in cheek, but it nicely demonstrates the reality of artificial intelligence in one important way.

Once we give them the keys to our civilization, it may not be easy to get them back.

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If there’s anyone on the planet who actually understands how artificial intelligences work, and what they’re capable of, it’s Geoffrey Hinton. He’s spent more than half a century of his professional life lifting artificial intelligence out of the realm of science fiction and into reality. Now, he’s having second thoughts about this life’s work.

Hinton put his chips down on neural networks decades ago, even while other computer scientists thought they were a dead end. Still, Hinton believed they would work, and that belief paid off in 2012 when he and a couple of graduate students invented a working neural network capable of training itself on images and identifying common objects. Those kinds of trainable neural networks are the heart and soul of modern artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT.

The success of 2012 led Hinton to Google, where he has worked for the last decade, helping to develop increasingly advanced AI systems. As of this week, however, Hinton is unemployed, having left his post at Google in order to speak openly in opposition to AI. More accurately, he’s speaking out about the seemingly headlong plunge into a technology we don’t really understand. Now Hinton knows, at least a little bit, what Dr. Frankenstein felt like after seeing what he had created. “I console myself with the normal excuse: If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have,” Dr. Hinton told The New York Times.

Geoffrey Hinton

The thing is, Dr. Frankenstein was wrong. His creation wasn’t a monster. And a look into humanity’s rearview mirror will reveal countless technologies, going back centuries, which we thought would mess up absolutely everything. Folks thought books would ruin society by making real life unbearable in comparison; not true. People thought it was impossible to break the sound barrier, believing an “invisible barrier” would destroy any aircraft attempting to travel that fast; not true. People thought video games would melt kids' brains, and that (mostly) wasn’t true.

The point is, every time something new comes along, there are those who start ringing the alarm bells. It’s certainly possible we’ll look back on this moment a decade from now and chuckle at how silly we were to have been concerned. But it’s hard not to look at artificial intelligence and see it as something wholly different, not beholden to the ordinary rules of books, airplanes, and video games.

This feels like a profound moment in the technological evolution of our species, on par with the printing press, the steam engine, or the invention of the internet. It’s the sort of technological paradigm shift which so totally changes the world that it is impossible to predict what things might look like on the other side.

RELATED: ChaosGPT is trying to destroy humanity; fortunately the AI is adorably bad at it

That’s precisely what has Hinton worried, and he’s not the only one. In March of this year, more than 1,000 tech leaders signed an open letter (along with more than 25,000 other signatories) requesting the cessation of all large-scale AI experiments until we can get our arms around what we’re dealing with.

The letter begins: “AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity.” It goes on to reference the Asilomar AI Principles (a set of governing principles for working with AI). Those principles state that “Advanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources.” The open letter contends that while AI technologies are proceeding apace, it is not with the appropriate amount of care and planning.

Hinton didn’t sign the letter in March, citing discomfort over speaking openly until he had left his position at Google. Now that he’s clocked out for the last time, he’s doing just that. Google has a history of responsible stewardship of their AI, according to Hinton, but that has changed in response to the evolving economic landscape. In short, Microsoft enhanced their Bing search engine with AI, which poses a threat to Google, so they are racing to follow suit. It’s this kneejerk arms race mentality that has Hinton and other experts concerned.

“I don’t think they should scale this up more until they have understood whether they can control it,” Hinton said. And we can’t help but think that Sister Simone would agree.

Catch the latest episodes of Mrs. Davis, streaming now on Peacock!