Sunday, October 09, 2016


The Edge Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

I don't know about you, but I feel humanity is situated on the edge of the next revolution...a tech revolution. It could be an exciting future. But, then again, it may not be. 

Artificial intelligence is one of main areas of technological development where people are putting efforts into safeguarding benefit to humanity perspectives. The fact that emphasis is placed on benefit to humanity means there is a downside...where developments could be detrimental to humanity. Multi-disciplinary research centres like the Future of Humanity Institute [FHI]at Oxford University, the Center of the Study of Existential Risk [CSER}at Cambridge University and the more loosely formed Future of Life Institute [Boston] [FLI] all have initiatives to conduct research into AI and AGI [artificial general intelligence ie: expansive human-like intelligence rather than task oriented] where benefit to humanity is the key driver. Then there is the recently formed Partnership on AI: to benefit people and society . The partnership is Amazon, Deep Mind, Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft. 

So, there are a couple of things to think about. One is the importance technology and AI developers are placing on benefit to humanity issues. The downside is acknowledged risk, which whilst small maybe irredeemable. Here, I quote from the CSER website The field of artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly along a range of fronts and while it promises tremendous benefits, a growing body of experts within and outside the field has raised concerns that future developments may represent a major technological risk. With the level of power, autonomy, and generality of AI expected to increase in coming years and decades, forward planning and research to avoid unexpected catastrophic consequences is essential.

Another thing to think about is - money. Beneficial AI will be lucrative for some, hopefully for many. Taking risks that might see the human species incapacitated in some way or worse, potentially annihilated, is not good business! There is a financial benefit in keeping AI beneficial to humans! This, of course, erupts into a whole set of other issues concerning equitable distribution and access, monopoly players, private vs public and more. Then there are questions about how legal frameworks will keep up with the ramifications of AI, AGI, autonomous weapons etc. The law is not noted for being a fast paced institution. Will it be left behind? Will AI replace practitioners and the judiciary? How can those who think about potential legal issues eg: law academics and legislators, keep up?

My painting The Edge 'speaks' to all the issues I've written about...and more. Regular readers will know of my keen interest in the development of lethal autonomous weapons [LAWS]. This kind of development is a specific case of AI being used in ways that could pose major risks. These are not just mortal risks, but also risks that will erode what it means to be human, what it means to live in community, erosion of ideas about society and civilisation. I draw your attention to an Open Letter published on the FLI website Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter form AI and Robotics Researchers

In The Edge I have used the figure of the armed drone. Six of them are half emerged from under something...they appear to be on the edge of emergence, ready and able to seek with their wide area surveillance systems and weapons. The drone is becoming a symbol of 21st century Western power and might, a symbol of a threshold in technological prowess where machines may be equipped with an autonomy that takes us into a scifi future. The symbol of the drone is, of course, a contested one. In parts of the world experiencing the outcomes of drone attacks, the drone is a symbol of inhumanity. 

In the painting, I quite like how the drones seem to be entering an abyss-like place. It seems to fall away from the foreground. It's like the drones have fallen off the edge of a ravine or cliff - rather than emerging from something? Yet, it may not be all bad! Maybe these drones are keeping Earth safe from alien attack? Maybe they are stationed in space? Maybe the 'landscape' is a cosmic one, rather than an Earthly one? The paint has created the 'scape' seemingly on its own. 



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