Starting in 2014, Irakli Beridze initiated and managed the first U.N. Programme on A.I. and Robotics and he is currently involved in detecting security, safety and economic threats and posing global solutions through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
“The greatest risk is the pace of development. If A.I. is being developed exponentially, it’s everywhere or at least bound to be soon. The adoption of thoughtful policies coupled with sober adaptation to a world in which A.I. will actually feature in every aspect of our life is our big challenge,” Irakli Beridze, who is heading the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, United Nations, UNICRI, told me in an interview for the upcoming book I am co-writing with Neil Sahota, Uber Yourself Before You Get Kodaked: A Modern Primer on A.I. for the Modern Business.
Beridze is one of the world’s leading experts on this subject. He has two decades of experience leading stakeholder engagement programs, fostering scientific and technical cooperation between governments, UN agencies, international organizations, think tanks, civil society, academia, and private industry. Starting in 2014, Beridze initiated and managed the first U.N. Programme on A.I. and Robotics and he is currently involved in detecting security, safety and economic threats and posing global solutions through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
However, before we consider Beridze’s thoughts on a global path forward toward peace and economic harmony, let’s discuss the crisis we face. The threat from A.I. has always loomed as a shadowy menace in the back of my mind — going back to my childhood. If I had been born a few decades prior, nuclear annihilation might have been my fear, stoked by teachers advising me to hide under my desk until the worst was past.
This was what my parents’ generation endured, not my contemporaries and me. Growing up in the age of MTV and Star Wars, my generation had its own existential threat: A.I. I can still remember the terror coursing through my body as I watched Sarah Connor in Terminator II grappling with Armageddon imposed by Skynet, her sinewy arms shaking the fence in horror as our computer overlords wiped out the human race.
In addition to the Terminator franchise, no shortage of A.I. villains have darkened the silver screen in recent years. Beginning with the granddaddy of them all: HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the life-force sucking machines of The Matrix, to the homicidal, Turing test-defying Ava of Ex Machina — it’s safe to say, there’s been a lack of positive popular culture A.I. role models.
As we know, mythical representations of shared apprehensions speak to mass anxieties. Still, these cinematic baddies aren’t too far off the mark from what some technological thought leaders, such as Elon Musk, have warned us about. In 2018, Musk, as well as almost 200 organizations, including Alphabet’s DeepMind signed a pledge to not develop lethal machines. “We, the undersigned, call upon governments and government leaders to create a future with strong international norms, regulations and laws against lethal autonomous weapons,” the signees agreed. “These currently being absent, we opt to hold ourselves to a high standard: we will neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade, or use of lethal autonomous weapons.”
However, the dire prospect of robots’ intent on annihilating their makers isn’t the only A.I. threat to wrest hold of the human consciousness in the Information Age. Fear surrounding A.I. also concerns the likelihood our creations won’t literally take our lives; they’ll take our livelihoods.
“A.I.-enhanced technological unemployment is one of the major issues of our time,” said Beridze. “Look anywhere and you will see people talking about it. Almost weekly I see new reports coming out suggesting something to the effect that between 20% to 70% of jobs will be wiped out because of A.I.” A 2017 report by the McKinsey Global Institute sought to quantify this possibility by researching 20 countries and 30 industries regarding six themes: “productivity and growth, natural resources, labor markets, the evolution of global financial markets, the economic impact of technology and urbanization.” What they found was that, “while few occupations are fully automatable, 60 percent of all occupations have at least 30 percent technically automatable activities.”
Though there is undoubtedly cause for concern that our economic way of life is changing — and faster than we can imagine — there is also very good reason to believe we have a bright future ahead. “Still, I have also seen reports which say that actually the contrary is true: that AI will create more jobs than people will lose,” said Beridze. In a recent interview with my coauthor and I, social entrepreneur and futurist Stephen Ibarakipointed to just such a possibility occurring in what he views as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
Certainly, the human race desires a world without autonomous weapons, one of vast abundance in which people are free to pursue happiness. But while the public has been subjected to countless reports and popular entertainment foretelling the dark side of A.I., there has been little conversation about how things might improve in the years to come.
Positive vision is greatly lacking in our public and private discourse. It would do us well to remember the words of President John F. Kennedy inspiring us to dream of greater tomorrows back when we were also contemplating a great frontier — the dream of space. “We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy once said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Now, pessimists and realists alike may contend it’s not possible to wrangle mass support around such a hopeful ideal, certainly not in today’s cynical public sphere. Such decriers could point to no shortage of recent examples demonstrating aggressive nationalism is on the rise, is coupled with xenophobic outrage, and that a trade war looms amongst rival world powers. These critics could reasonably doubt the chances for developing a strong global coalition to face what is coming — or more accurately, what is already here.
But for those who think that mankind’s biggest problem is that our technology has outstripped our morality — that we have a long way to go before we are capable of responsibly handling the A.I. revolution, Beridze encourages considering the historical record. We have come a long way toward building a just society, one capable of facing the biggest technological leap in history.
“Of course, we have way more to go — we’re nowhere near an ideal world, but if we look at the trajectory of positive change in the last few centuries, it’s astonishing! It’s only been a little more than 70 years since the end of World War II. If you go back a bit, at the start of the twentieth century, we had completely different ideas of human rights. Women couldn’t vote, nor hold elected office. We had a radically different understanding of our duties to one another.”
In a world lacking moonshot speeches, let this article be one droplet in a growing sea celebrating changes to come. Instead of fearing our miraculous creations, let us marvel at our continuing ingenuity. Rather than fear there won’t be enough to go around, let’s steer the cultural conversation toward ways in which we can include everyone in the bounty to come.
Defying concerns about the rise of nationalism, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari recently offered similar hopeful thoughts on Sam Harris’s Podcast, Waking Up. “Nationalism only developed over the last thousand years, which is yesterday morning in evolutionary terms. Nationalism demands something almost impossible … for us to feel loyal to millions of strangers we have never met before — that we know nothing about — and are never likely to meet. Nationalism managed to do that. And if we can do that I think the distance from there to caring about 8 billion people you’ve never met is much smaller than the distance already covered.”
This is an exponential way of considering our relations to others. And it’s needed in a world that’s quickly transforming from a linear to an exponential society. Right now, Beridze and his colleagues are engaged in a campaign through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to “achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” Goal No. 1 is alleviate poverty; other aims include eradicating world hunger, providing quality education, ending gender inequality, and providing clean water, sanitation, and affordable clean energy.
Without a doubt, these are exponential goals for exponential times. Years ago, JFK’s moonshot offered a vison for one group of people. The 21st century moonshot is a dream of what all of us can do together. It’s time to start that conversation now.