Why AI isn’t a silver bullet for all problems

Thought leaders, computer scientists and experts warn against AI ‘solutionism’ and emphasise the need for its regulation

Stuart Russell, right, from the University of California, Berkeley, at the WEF Global Future Councils in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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While artificial intelligence has improved people's lives, there is still a significant amount of misunderstanding about it, experts said at the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils annual meeting in Dubai on Tuesday.

“[AI] is not a technology. It’s a field of study. It’s defined by the problem of how to make machines intelligent,” Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the meeting.

Mr Russell also dismissed the notion that AI is new. “It’s about 80 years old,” he said, referring to the various iterations and ideas on how to make machines intelligent.

He said that although impressive and full of potential, artificial intelligence and machines that will match or exceed human performance across every conceivable task have not been realised yet. However, the pace is quickening, he added at the event, which is part of the agenda of the World Economic Forum's annual meeting held in Davos, Switzerland.

Mr Russell also warned against blindly accepting the idea of AI “solutionism”. “AI isn’t a solution to everything,” he said.

AI solutionism is the philosophy that, given enough data, machine learning algorithms can solve all problems faced by humanity.

Climate change was a perfect example of why AI wouldn’t be the silver bullet to all of the world’s problems, he said.

“It might help around the edges,” he said, referring to the ability to use AI to find specific climate solutions. “But the climate is really a collective action problem. We know what to do but we’re not doing it.”

It’s one thing to find a solution, it’s another thing to implement it, Mr Russell said. That task must fall to humans. “AI isn't going to make us do it.”

He said education was greatest example of how AI could enrich lives. “AI can deliver extremely high quality personalised tutoring to every child on earth and it’s going to maximise their potential.”

However, it would be a mistake to totally dismiss AI's potential power. “At some point we have to expect the machine to take control,” he cautioned.

“How do we retain power over entities more powerful than ourselves forever? What’s clear is that we had better produce an answer to that question before we develop those machines that are more powerful than ourselves.”

The discussions at the Global Future Councils meeting are happening at a time when the prolific use of AI tools is sparking discussions, debates and speculation about AI's potential impact on jobs, as well as its biases and even misuse by unseemly actors.

AI has gained momentum with the introduction of generative AI, which rose to prominence thanks to ChatGPT, the language model-based tool made by Microsoft-backed OpenAI.

Its rise has also raised questions about how data is used in AI models and how the law applies to their output, such as paragraphs of text or computer-generated images.

During another panel session, called Is AI a Force for Good?, Azeem Azhar, chief executive at Exponential View, a technology and AI newsletter, said AI should be viewed through the lens of technology overall.

“Technology is essential. If we’re asking if AI is a force for good, we’re also asking is technology a force for good,” he said, while acknowledging that AI systems collect and combine all previous knowledge of humanity, which makes them slightly different.

ChatGPT-4, he said, is trained on 3 trillion words of text. The sheer speed of its evolution is unprecedented. “It’s outpacing our ability to work and think; it’s disruptive by nature,” he said.

Khalfan Belhoul, chief executive at the Dubai Future Foundation, said speed would be paramount in terms of government and regulations regarding AI.

“The gap between policy and technology will always be there, but you have to constantly try to shrink that gap,” he said.

“We in the UAE jump into things early like AI,” he added, noting that the UAE was the first country to appoint a Minister of AI.

Mr Belhoul and Mr Azhar were asked the key question in the minds of people around the world: Is AI a force for good? Both replied: “Yes, absolutely.”

Updated: October 17, 2023, 3:55 PM