Google co-founder Sergey Brin warned that the current boom in artificial intelligence has created a "technological renaissance" that contains many potential threats. Writing in the annual charter of the company's founders, published on Friday, the president of Alphabet launched a caution note. "The new spring in artificial intelligence is the most important development in computing in my life," writes Brin. "Every month, there are new and surprising applications and new transformative techniques." However, he adds, "such powerful tools also bring new questions and responsibilities."
Brin begins his letter by quoting the initial lines of Charles Dickens. A tale of two cities – "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times". It points out how the power of computing has exploded since Google was founded in 1998, and how, at that time, the technique that now forms the backbone of contemporary AI, neural networks, was simply "a forgotten footnote in computing "
The revolution in machine learning in the past decade has changed that, and Brin lists some of the many ways in which AI is used to drive Alphabet's services and companies. Analyze images in Google Photos; translate more than 100 languages in Google translate; it feeds the navigation systems in the cars without driver of Waymo; and even helps diagnose diseases and discover new planetary systems. "In this sense, we are really in a rebirth of technology, an exciting time where we can see applications in almost every segment of modern society," writes Brin.
But, he says, AI raises a series of problems as well, "from the fears of science fiction-style sensibility to shorter-term questions, such as the validation of the performance of driverless cars." Brin says that Alphabet is giving "serious thought" to several of these issues, including how AI will affect employment; the challenges of making impartial and transparent algorithms; and the fear that this technology will be used to "manipulate people". (It is very likely that it is a reference to recent discussions about false news generated by AI).
Notably, however, Brin does not mention a controversial use of AI that is particularly relevant to Alphabet: military applications. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Google was helping the Pentagon deploy machine learning tools to analyze drones video surveillance sequences. The company has said that the technology is only for "non-offensive uses," but thousands of Google employees have demanded that the company withdraw from the project.
Brin's letter also comes at a time when Silicon Valley firms face more scrutiny than ever, with governments and the public accepting their enormous size and wealth. Technology earnings reports last week will have done nothing to dispel such fears, since Alphabet reported a 26 percent increase in revenue to $ 31.1 billion, and Amazon's profits increased 43 percent year-over-year, with first quarter sales of $ 51 billion.
The fear that AI will destroy jobs and manipulate policies will probably be part of any future discussion about the need to curb Big Tech's power and influence. This, as much as anything else, probably explains Brin's grim tone. He closes the letter saying: "While I am optimistic about the potential to apply technology to the world's biggest problems, we are on a path that we must travel with deep responsibility, care and humility." The unspoken message? There is no going back.