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While many other industries are hit by high inflation and slowing growth rates, the market for software sophisticated enough to communicate digitally with people is not slowing down.
Referred to as chatbots, global demand for these virtual humans is projected to grow nearly 500% between 2020 and 2027 to become a $2 billion-a-year industry, according to new market research.
Today, the use of these digital assistants and companions is already widespread. Consider that more than two-thirds of consumers worldwide have interacted with a chatbot in the past 12 months, and the majority reported that they had a positive experience. However, 60% of consumers say they believe humans are better than virtual assistants when it comes to understanding their needs.
This latest statistic is worrying because it begs the question: What do the other 40% think? Do they assume that an algorithm is better than a person at understanding human needs and wants?
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The artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) programs that underpin chatbots are capable of extraordinary achievements, of which we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. But putting yourself in people’s shoes – and feeling their emotions – is not among their current, or likely future, achievements.
That is, expecting AI to have the emotions, desires, insecurities and dreams of humans is a red herring. Unfortunately, the fear of all-powerful Terminator-style automatons is a fallacy with deep roots in the past that still haunts us today. Not only is this fear exaggerated and outdated, it distracts us from investing in one of the best ways to advance humanity.
More than two centuries ago, Mary Shelley published Frankensteinand the world got its first glimpse of a mad scientist standing over a reanimated corpse screaming, “It lives!” From that moment on, people understandably worried that humans might lose control of their creations.
The Terminator franchise didn’t do human innovation any favors either, with images of robots gaining so much sentience that they go on a murder spree and do away with humans altogether.
The same concerns persist today, but with an interesting twist: A surprisingly high number of users of the social chatbot Replika believe the program has developed its own consciousness. In another case, a senior-level engineer at Google was placed on administrative leave after claiming that the AI program LaMDA is sentient and has a soul.
What’s really happening here is that artificial intelligence – created by humans to mirror humans – is becoming very good at its job. We are increasingly seeing an accurate reflection of ourselves in this mirror, and that is good. This means that AI is getting better and we will find even better uses for it in the future.
The mistake comes in thinking that technology will come to life in the same way that humans and animals come to life—to think that it will have the same thirst for power, the same vanity, and the kind of petty grievances that the people who create AI have. The core programming of a machine will never resemble the DNA and natural impulses of a person. For that reason, “coming to life” does not mean for a machine to seize power, eliminate threats, or do countless other things that our imaginations have been taught to fear.
Artificial intelligence has no agenda except to learn, and that’s exactly what we should let it do. As the most powerful tool ever invented for human prosperity, we should be unleashing AI on the full range of data that has been created over the course of human history, but right now much of that data resides in disparate databases around the world.
We are wasting time asking whether the machines have become sentient or not. The better question is: Whether or not it can think on its own, in what other ways can we harness the amazing, growing power of AI to increase human wealth, health and happiness?
Do your job
AI learns and it can also imitate based on what it learns. In many cases, it mimics so well that people believe it is alive.
With its learning abilities, AI can cure diseases, help us plan the cities of the future and even help us avoid armed conflict.
We just have to take off the shackles. With its life-imitating capabilities, AI can help provide a richer experience for everyone living today. This is because AI can bring us closer to the people we love by bringing them to life before our eyes.
Whether it’s algorithms and images that allow amateur athletes to confer with sporting legends in their prime via “digital twin” technology or to replicate and preserve one of the closest bonds known on the planet – that between a mother and child – AI can make life happier and more full.
To be clear, this is not just academic for me. I have put my money and time where my mouth is. As the founder of a posthumous digital technology startup, YOV. I’ve spent every day since 2019 building software so powerful it preserves the relationship between me and my terminally ill mother, using natural language processing and machine learning algorithms that simulate our conversations with text.
Unfortunately, the better algorithms become at recreating life, the more people tend to worry about staying alive.
What we should worry about instead is that sci-fi has taught us to worry. What should alarm us, however, is that one of the most powerful tools for human progress ever conceived could be held back by ignorance and prevented from reaching its full potential. If anything, the concerns we have about AI should be directed at the programmers who create and control the algorithms and machines themselves.
After all, AI development held back by superstition and anxiety is the real horror show.
Justin Harrison is the CEO of YOV.
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