Today, top individuals from around the world convened at the World Government Summit to discuss the agenda that should govern the next generation of governments. Yesterday, a select few of these leaders gathered in a closed-door meeting to discuss the guidelines that nations should use as they help their people come to terms with no longer being the only sentient species on the planet.
Of course, this was just one of the many topics discussed. Officials also deliberated on the most immediate ways they can implement AI technologies to make our lives better, who should govern AI, and how to best navigate the perilous roads ahead.
The event was organized by the AI Initiative from the Future Society at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, the UAE’s Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence. The goal of the day was a noble one. The closed-door roundtable was intended to lay out guidelines for the global governance of AI — a roadmap for all nations to adopt.
It was a gathering that attracted some of the most powerful and influential minds in the world. Representatives from IEEE, OECD, and the U.N. Managers from IBM Watson, Microsoft, Facebook, OpenAI, Nest, Drive.ai, and Amazon AI. Governing officials from Italy, France, Estonia, Canada, Russia, Singapore, Australia, the UAE. The list goes on and on.
Futurism was fortunate enough to have exclusive access to the event.
At times, the room was full of inspiration. At others, I found myself wading through the despair that surrounded me. Yet, even when the conversation turned to topics fraught with the most frustration — whether or not it's possible to ban certain kinds of AI research; if humans could ever take power from truly sentient AI — there was hope.
The day is young. The dawn of AI is just beginning. We yet have time.
When H.E. Omar bin Sultan Al Olama opened the day, it was with great optimism. He addressed the crowd, which included luminaries such as Stuart Russell, Sui Yang Phang, Jaan Tallinn, IBM's Francesca Rossi, and Amazon's Anima Anandkuma, saying, "This day is going to change history. Whenever a group of individuals of such diverse backgrounds comes together, great things happen."
He continued more soberly, noting that the last time the world faced a threat of this consequence, it resulted in the creation of the Manhattan project. But this time, he added, the stakes are higher.
"I’m not trying to be negative, but it has to happen now."
Throughout the day, the participants reiterated this sentiment: if we do not act now, we lose, and we will lose everything. "I’m not trying to be negative, but it has to happen now," John C. Havens, Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, noted during one break.
Yet, solutions were elusive. The attendees agreed that history has long ago shown us it's impossible to stymie technological and scientific progress. What becomes banned or over-regulated simply relocates to back alleys and hidden rooms. To avoid this, the attendees agreed, the best option seems to be a dual approach: First, nations must incentivize research in areas that provide the most benefit and least risk to humanity. Second, they must invest heavily in AI research and development. It is thought that, by keeping pace with corporations and innovators, governments will be better positioned to anticipate and prevent any problems along the way.
Once leaders take the time to consider, make sense of, and compile all of the findings from yesterday into a report, the hope is that more concrete and actionable steps will emerge.
Though the day itself ended with few clear answers, the attendees were generally positive. "The number of both technical papers and start-up companies has exploded in recent years," one attendee offered. "It’s amazing. But we’re still pretty small. We see the same faces at all these conferences. We still have a chance to make solutions."
Cyrus Hodes, Vice President and Director of the AI Initiative, shared this optimism. "Such a gathering has been much needed and will help the international community embrace the enormously positive impact of AI while at the same time getting prepared to mitigate potential downsides."
There is, of course, much work ahead. To date, there have been many initiatives, and plenty of talks, but no answers. Our future depends on how soon we find them. The quest has begun.
Disclaimer: this article has been updated to clarify that the event was closed-door and that all quotes to come from the event were non-attributable.