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Your questions answered on artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence and robotics have enjoyed a resurgence of interest, and there is renewed optimism about their place in our future. But what do they mean for us?

You submitted your questions about artificial intelligence and robotics, and we put them – and some of our own – to The Conversation’s experts.

Q1. How plausible is human-like artificial intelligence?

A. Toby Walsh, Professor of AI:

It is 100% plausible that we’ll have human-like artificial intelligence.

I say this even though the human brain is the most complex system in the universe that we know of. There’s nothing approaching the complexity of the brain’s billions of neurons and trillions of connections. But there are also no physical laws we know of that would prevent us reproducing or exceeding its capabilities.

A. Kevin Korb, Reader in Computer Science

Popular AI from Issac Asimov to Steven Spielberg is plausible. What the question doesn’t address is: when will it be plausible?

Most AI researchers (including me) see little or no evidence of it coming anytime soon. Progress on the major AI challenges is slow, if real.

What I find less plausible than the AI in fiction is the emotional and moral lives of robots. They seem to be either unrealistically empty, such as the emotion-less Data in Star Trek, or unrealistically human-identical or superior, such as the AI in Spike Jonze’s Her.

All three – emotion, ethics and intelligence – travel together, and are not genuinely possible in some form without the others, but fiction writers tend to treat them as separate. Plato’s Socrates made a similar mistake.

A. Gary Lea, Researcher in Artificial Intelligence Regulation

AI is not impossible, but the real issue is: “how like is like?” The answer probably lies in applied tests: the Turing test was already (arguably) passed in 2014 but there is also the coffee test (can an embodied AI walk into an unfamiliar house and make a cup of coffee?), the college degree test and the job test.

If AI systems could progressively pass all of those tests (plus whatever else the psychologists might think of), then we would be getting very close. Perhaps the ultimate challenge would be whether a suitably embodied AI could live among us as J. Average and go undetected for five years or so before declaring itself.

Q2. Automation is already replacing many jobs. Is it time make laws to protect some of these industries?

A. Jonathan Roberts, Professor of Robotics

Researchers at the University of Oxford published a now well cited paper in 2013 that ranked jobs in order of how feasible it was to computerise or automate them. They found that nearly half of jobs in the USA could be at risk from computerisation within 20 years.

This research was followed in 2014 by the viral video hit, Humans Need Not Apply, which argued that many jobs will be replaced by robots or automated systems and that employment would be a major issue for humans in the future.

Of course, it is difficult to predict what will happen, as the reasons for replacing people with machines are not simply based around available technology. The major factor is actually the business case and the social attitudes and behaviour of people in particular markets.

A. Rob Sparrow, Professor of Philosophy

Advances in computing and robotic technologies are undoubtedly going to lead to the replacement of many jobs currently done by humans. I’m not convinced that we should be making laws to protect particular industries though. Rather, I think we should be doing two things.

First, we should be making sure that people are assured of a good standard of living and an opportunity to pursue meaningful projects even in a world in which many more jobs are being done by machines. After all, the idea that, in the future, machines would work so that human beings didn’t have to toil used to be a common theme in utopian thought.

When we accept that machines putting people out of work is bad, what we are really accepting is the idea that whether ordinary people have an income and access to activities that can give their lives meaning should be up to the wealthy, who may choose to employ them or not. Instead, we should be looking to redistribute the wealth generated by machines in order to reduce the need for people to work without thereby reducing the opportunities available to them to be doing things that they care about and gain value from.

Second, we should be protecting vulnerable people in our society from being treated worse by machines than they would be treated by human beings. With my mother, Linda Sparrow, I have argued that introducing robots into the aged care setting will most likely result in older people receiving a worse standard of treatment than they already do in the aged care sector. Prisoners and children are also groups who are vulnerable to suffering at the hands of robots introduced without their consent.

A. Toby Walsh, Professor of AI:

There are some big changes about to happen. The #1 job in the US today is truck driver. In 30 years time, most trucks will be autonomous.

How we cope with this change is a question not for technologists like myself but for society as a whole. History would suggest that protectionism is unlikely to work. We would, for instance, need every country in the world to sign up.

But there are other ways we can adjust to this brave new world. My vote would be to ensure we have an educated workforce that can adapt to the new jobs that technology create.

We need people to enter the workforce with skills for jobs that will exist in a couple of decades time when the technologies for these jobs have been invented.

We need to ensure that everyone benefits from the rising tide of technology, not just the owners of the robots. Perhaps we can all work less and share the economic benefits of automation? This is likely to require fundamental changes to our taxation and welfare system informed by the ideas of people like the economist Thomas Piketty.

A. Kevin Korb, Reader in Computer Science

Industrial protection and restriction are the wrong way to go. I’d rather we develop our technology so as to help solve some of our very real problems. That’s bound to bring with it economic dislocation, so a caring society will accommodate those who lose out because of it.

But there’s no reason we can’t address that with improving technology as long as we keep the oligarchs under control. And if we educate people for flexibility rather than to fit into a particular job, intelligent people will be able to cope with the dislocation.

A. Jai Galliot, Defence Analyst

The standard argument is that workers displaced by automation go on to find more meaningful work. However, this does not hold in all cases.

Think about someone who signed up with the Air Force to fly jets. These pilots ma