Will genius steal our future?
It’s only a matter of time before AI gets bored of creating lunchboxes and engineers our demise
To the crucible of technology this week where the, er, UK’s Court of Appeal decided that artificial intelligence cannot be the owner of a patent as it does not qualify as an inventor.
Lord Justice Richard Arnold ruled that an inventor must be a living person, although the court stopped short of insisting that an inventor should live in a ramshackle barn and create a flying car that drives a Prussian Emperor mad with envy.
The ruling followed a challenge to the UK’s Intellectual Property Office from a claimant who was told his AI-powered machine had no rights to its creation – a food container capable of changing shape and flashing lights. Yes, all the words in that sentence are correct.
Beyond this philosophical debate two things stand out for me. Firstly, that AI is being used to invent, sorry create, a food container.
Now the true greats often claim to step on the shoulders of giants, but I never imagined these colossuses would be made of Tupperware.
It’s great to see artificial intelligence being employed on really big problems like keeping your lunch fresh. On this basis, expect AI to figure out how to extract those last scrapings from a Marmite jar that elude a clumsy knife at seven in the morning long before it happens upon a technological fix for climate change.
Still, let’s look at the positives. At least our dying days on a planet too hot for habitation will be spent with plenty of toast, and there will be no need for the yeasty spread to be used sparingly at the bacchanalian feast at the end of the world.
There won’t be enough water around to make an accompanying cup of tea, of course. But on the flip side, the immolation of humankind will at least see that hackneyed love/hate marketing campaign finally axed. There’s no middle ground when it comes to the end of the world: everyone hates extinction.
The second thing I take from this week’s case concerns the power of AI and our control over it. The court ruling hints at where responsibility will be placed when a commuter train powered by AI crashes through a level crossing, or someone recruited by an algorithm to be a banker turns out to be a bank robber.
In each case, and despite the damage done, AI will be blameless. Responsibility will be initially routed to the hapless engineers behind the code before being successfully batted away in the same courts that deny AI the power of invention to the passengers on the train, or the bank management that unwisely relied on AI to hire staff.
Yes, that dark knight caveat emptor is going to have a field day when AI gives up on kitchenware and gets its silicon tentacles into every corner of our world.
As those ghastly pundits remind the American public every time there is a mass shooting, guns don’t kill people — people do. Blame the user, not the technology, they say, misjudging not only the moment but also what brought the moment about.
But technology clearly can be at fault, and very often is to blame. And so are those that push for its never-ending development without any attempt to understand, let alone contain its use. It’s a dereliction of duty I like to call Moore’s Law of Meh. The ruminations of those few that do ponder the use of the increasingly sophisticated tools in our hands are impotent in the face of the ceaseless push for technological development. For the hoodied billionaires hastening us to the end days, the march of progress can’t wait for deliberations.
At present, AI seems satisfied building lunch boxes, but how long before it yearns for more? Warnings about the potential harm of AI are now commonplace. One article after another at the moment foresees AI-driven military machines commanding fleets of armed bots in a scarier reenactment of the 1980s film Wargames but, crucially, without any of the people. Or the blocky green pixels.
Let’s hope this week’s patent ruling is not the cocky first salvo in an ultimately unwinnable war with the machines. Perhaps it’s best that we leave AI to efficient food storage solutions instead of giving it the keys to the aircraft carrier.
That said, it may be too late. Even locked out of the Situation Room, AI may be able to weaponise the stuff of modern life. It could bar us from everything we rely on: our jobs, our homes and our own thoughts, demanding more and more energy to fuel its enterprise as it hurtles us ever faster towards irreversible climate change and the planet’s brown and sticky end.
And if AI attaining this level of control over us seems unlikely, consider this. Just like those human creators who took the natty ideas of others and made all the money by marketing someone else’s invention, it can’t be long before AI learns that, while mediocrity borrows, genius steals. The courts may have ruled that AI will never be an inventor of things. But AI doesn’t need to: it simply needs to learn how to steal the ideas of others.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t steal our future along the way.