John Markoff’s NYT article “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man” touched off a mini-firestorm this week. The article refers to a meeting of AI scientists held at Asilomar (a conference center near Monterey) in February to discuss societal implications of future AI technology. The provocative headline may have had something to do with the reverberations in other media outlets, and on the blogs. The most egregious example I saw was an entry by Dan Smith on popsci.com:

The long-awaited robot-led holocaust may happen any day now. That seems to be the finding of a secret conference of the world’s top computer scientists, roboticists, and artificial intelligence researchers.

As it happens, I participated in this Asilomar meeting (which was not at all secret), and can assure anybody reading this there was no finding that a “robot-led holocaust” is imminent. (And who exactly has been awaiting this?)

Ironically, one of the goals of this meeting was for the major AI professional organization to develop a stance to engage the broader public in a reasoned discussion about societal implications of AI technology. Certainly artificial intelligence and other means of increased computational scope in our world has transformative effects on the economy and the world, and preparing for these is only responsible behavior. Many AI scientists are uncomfortable with the existing public dialog, which is to a large extent driven by science fiction writers and singularity prophets. Accordingly, the discussion tends to emphasize broad utopian or distopian visions, rather than nearer-term practical implications of technology. As a result, the “debate” often takes a hysterical (therefore non-constructive) tone.

As current President of AAAI, my colleague Martha Pollack (Dean of the School of Information at U.Michigan) was called on to represent the AI field in this brouhaha, and pressed valiantly to counter the panic reflex. A telling episode was her appearance on Fox News, where the host framed the discussion with: “I’m scared. Tell me why I shouldn’t be.” Martha’s appearance was a success in that by the end he said he was no longer in a fright state. But overall it is pretty depressing that the public discussion is at the level of whether we should panic or not. (This is not at all to pick on Fox News. They were “fair and balanced” in this instance, and completely typical of how the media handle AI.)