Dauvergne, previously author of Will Big Business Destroy our Planet, painted an almost dystopian (if nominally exciting) future in which incredibly clever micro-targeting of advertising in a digital, consumer context will supercharge consumption and empower large corporations. Aided by autonomous, AI-enhanced mining equipment and other forms of agricultural/fisheries and civilian transport and machinery, this process might clean out the planet leaving it far more depleted than it already is, with climate change ignored and most megafauna extinct.
Equally a concern is weaponization. Dauvergne noted that China is believed to be working intensively on the military application of all forms of AI, while publicly only discussing civilian applications. The Pentagon recently tendered a large contract in this area. Asked who is leading this unofficial and mostly invisible ‘arms race,’ Dauvergne recommended Kai-Fu Lee’s book AI Super-Powers, adding that the US is ahead in raw discoveries, but that China was ‘racing’ to catch up, and possessed a large advantage in procuring data (from surveillance, partly) tending to ignore many of the privacy issues that are normative in the west.
To impart a sense of the rapidity of these changes, Dauvergne cited one commercial prediction, that ‘derived business value’ from AI was $700m in 2017, but expected to be $4 trillion by 2022, an expansion amounting to an explosion.
Turning to the widely heralded advantages of AI for conservation and sustainability, Dauvergne showed a slide of a submersible piece of autonomous equipment called a ‘ranger bot’ that scours Australian coral reefs, autonomously and accurately killing one species of invasive starfish. Yet, he noted, such a discrete effort to address a single problem does nothing to address underlying causes, such as agricultural run-off, a huge issue on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
One can imagine drones to map biodiversity or fight poachers and illegal logging; satellite surveillance to track fishery fleets and autonomous cars that reduce road traffic accidents. Crop diseases will be more easily identified by apps like Plantix, while medical diagnostics will undergo a revolution, putting a ‘doctor’ in reach of everyone via their smart device. In all such examples Dauvergne emphasised that humans stood to potentially advance their lot, with sustainability enhanced in some cases.
The difficulty with all these examples, he said, was that they will likely be deployed by the ‘bad guys’ too, by illegal fishers, loggers and poachers, (and legitimate or semi-legitimate resource extracting industries and states). The ranger bot/coral reef example generates cute headlines while the underlying problems proceed unchecked.
Floor discussion following the talk elucidated that broad insight that AI is poised to become, in numerous ways, a ‘non-human actor,’ replacing humans in numerous roles and thus increasing unemployment. But Dauvergne was adamant that it cannot be ‘put back in its box’, and ‘we can’t wish it away,’ he said. What we can do is be perceptive to its true risks and honest about its true (or desirable) limits and applications.
Climate change was raised only by one member of the audience at the very end of the Q&A, creating the sense that AI is so enormous that it needs to be mapped and tracked on its own terms. In its myriad applications, argued Dauvergne, AI is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ for anything including the planet and sustainability. Rather, it greatly amplifies what humans would have otherwise done within their own human limits. We have to hope that the genius squared will be a responsible actor.