Obama: The First President of the Age of AI

Last August, President Barack Obama sat down with entrepreneur and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and WIRED's editor-in-chief Scott Dadich in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to discuss artificial intelligence — a topic fit for a room so solemnly historical.

With the White House releasing a report on the future of AI and today's White House Frontiers Conference, it seems fitting to go back to the finer points of that historic interview — which Dadich saw as an opportunity "to sort through the hope, the hype, and the fear around AI."

(L to R) Ito, Dadich, and Obama. Credits: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos for WIRED

On The Age of AI

The discussion covered several important points; however, Dadich's first question regarding AI got straight to the major point, and Obama was quick to note that, in many ways, synthetic intelligence is already altering our society.

Dadich asked, "When was the moment you knew that the age of AI was upon us?" Obama gave a rather good answer, noting that a total transformation comes slowly and piecemeal:

My general observation is that it has been seeping into our lives in all sorts of ways, and we just don’t notice; and part of the reason is because the way we think about AI is colored by popular culture [...] We’ve been seeing specialized AI in every aspect of our lives, from medicine and transportation to how electricity is distributed, and it promises to create a vastly more productive and efficient economy. If properly harnessed, it can generate enormous prosperity and opportunity. But it also has some downsides that we’re gonna have to figure out in terms of not eliminating jobs. It could increase inequality. It could suppress wages.

Ito took a more social approach to it, adding that "this is the year that artificial intelligence becomes more than just a computer science problem. Everybody needs to understand that how AI behaves is important. In the Media Lab we use the term extended intelligence [machine learning as extensions of human intelligence]. Because the question is, how do we build societal values into AI?"

Obama replied by noting that these advances are on the cusp of reality, and that it is really policy that is holding us back (a policy that will soon be worked out):

The technology is essentially here. We have machines that can make a bunch of quick decisions that could drastically reduce traffic fatalities, drastically improve the efficiency of our transportation grid, and help solve things like carbon emissions that are causing the warming of the planet. [...] There are gonna be a bunch of choices that you have to make, the classic problem being: If the car is driving, you can swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian, but then you might hit a wall and kill yourself. It’s a moral decision, and who’s setting up those rules?

Asked what what the role of government should be in AI development, Obama replied:

[T]he government should add a relatively light touch, investing heavily in research and making sure there’s a conversation between basic research and applied research. As technologies emerge and mature, then figuring out how they get incorporated into existing regulatory structures becomes a tougher problem, and the govern­ment needs to be involved a little bit more. Not always to force the new technology into the square peg that exists but to make sure the regulations reflect a broad base set of values.

The Future of AI and Us

On the matter of whether AI would outpace us, both agreed that it's important "to find the people who want to use AI for good—communities and leaders—and figure out how to help them use it," he said,

I think my directive to my national security team is, don’t worry as much yet about machines taking over the world. Worry about the capacity of either nonstate actors or hostile actors to penetrate systems, and in that sense it is not conceptually different than a lot of the cybersecurity work we’re doing. It just means that we’re gonna have to be better, because those who might deploy these systems are going to be a lot better now.

How will we manage AI replacing jobs in the future? Obama said:

[M]ost people aren’t spending a lot of time right now worrying about singularity—they are worrying about “Well, is my job going to be replaced by a machine?” I tend to be on the optimistic side—historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, and people find that new jobs are created, they migrate, and our standards of living generally go up [...] High-skill folks do very well in these systems. They can leverage their talents, they can interface with machines to extend their reach, their sales, their products and services.

Read the full interview here.

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