Ram Madhav
December 30, 2023

Press Pause and Process

(The article was originally published in Indian Express on December 30, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

On December 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) Summit in Delhi. For some time now, he and his ministerial colleagues have been talking about making India the hub for the AI ecosystem. The Prime Minister talked about the opportunities available for AI in India but also used the occasion to highlight some important concerns.

The explosion of digital age technologies is going to revolutionise the future of mankind. However, this frontier technology brings with it a set of serious challenges towards which the Prime Minister sought to draw global attention. While there are “many positive aspects” of AI, it can “also play the greatest role in destroying the 21st century,” he warned, referring to challenges like deep fakes, cyber security, data theft and terrorists accessing AI tools.

The world has entered the era of Artificial Intelligence, big data and robotics. Machine learning, the process of creating “intelligent machines”, is taking new strides. Google developed an AI-driven chess program called Alpha Zero in 2018. Alpha Zero’s unique AI mind has the capacity to think and improve upon its playing skills. It practised against itself millions of times and acquired an ability that the most powerful digital chess programs, such as Stockfish, couldn’t stand up to.

In essence, we, humans, are using our own intelligence to create machines that we intend to call “artificial”, but, in reality, are more intelligent than humans. We are entering a world where the machines, not the humans, could become the masters. This scenario is causing anxiety and concern to many in the world. In March this year, thousands of eminent global citizens, including ones like Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, released an open letter titled “Pause Giant AI Experiments”, and demanded that all AI labs must pause experiments for at least six months to address some serious and real concerns. “AI stresses me out,” confessed Musk, while the open letter raised serious questions like, “should we let machines flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth? Should we develop nonhuman minds that might eventually outnumber, outsmart, obsolete, and replace us?”

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, too, joined this bandwagon of AI sceptics and issued warnings about how unregulated AI can lead to uncontrollable harm to individuals and societies. A few years ago, on February 28, 2020, in an unusual initiative, the Vatican hosted a dialogue in Rome “to promote an ethical approach to artificial intelligence”, where Catholic priests rubbed shoulders with AI industry leaders, deliberating on the concerns about AI. The dialogue released a six-point charter, “Rome Call for AI Ethics”, that coined a new concept “algorethics” – ethical algorithms. “Grant man his centrality” – the Vatican fervently appealed to the AI industry.

Signatories to this Rome Call included Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, John Kelly, executive vice president of IBM, and Paola Pisano, Italian minister of innovation besides Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, a senior Vatican cleric.
The Rome Call was intended to promote an ethical approach to AI. The participants insisted that digital innovation and technological progress should serve human genius and creativity and “not their gradual replacement”. They wanted a sense of responsibility among organisations, governments, institutions and the private sector towards that end.

The Delhi Declaration, released at the end of the G-20 Summit in September this year, also underscored the concerns and gave a strong call for a “Responsible Human-Centric AI”. Insisting that a framework is needed “to prevent misuse of AI”, the Delhi Declaration appealed that like the agreements and protocols for various international issues, “we have to work together to create a global framework for the ethical use of AI”. PM Modi took the lead in adding urgency to it, saying, “Bharat calls upon the entire world that we should not waste even one moment. There are only a few days left in this year. The new year is round the corner. We have to complete the global framework within a given time limit. This task is very important to protect humanity”.

As we prepare to end 2023, came the New Year message from Pope Francis titled “Artificial Intelligence and Peace”. The Pope also expressed concern that the “remarkable advances in the digital sphere” may have “serious implications for the pursuit of justice and harmony among the people”.

The Pope raised “urgent questions” about the consequences, in the medium and long term, of these new digital technologies, their impact on individual lives and on societies, and on international stability and peace. He highlighted the need for preserving fundamental human values like “inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy and reliability”.

The human race has progressed in the last two millennia on the basis of faith initially, and then reason, after the dawn of Enlightenment. But the reason that guided mankind until now is facing its biggest challenge in the new strides that AI is making. The new reality will be created not by human reason anymore but by the machine mind empowered by artificial intelligence. In many respects, it is inscrutable, too.

The world has witnessed many transformative technological advancements in the past. The last time that it happened during the Enlightenment, a strong philosophical and moral framework followed its evolution, providing it with necessary ethical foundations. But now, the Meta era is being conceived and offered to us by the big-tech as a fait accompli, while no philosophical, moral and ethical interventions seem to be in sight. “While the number of individuals capable of creating AI is growing, the ranks of those contemplating this technology’s implications for humanity — social, legal, philosophical, spiritual, moral — remain dangerously thin” bemoaned Henry Kissinger in the book, The Age of AI: And Our Human Future (2021).

Both Prime Minister Modi and Pope Francis are trying to highlight this major discrepancy. It is time the world leadership paused and thought about “algorethics” – the ethics of AI.

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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