Source: Dilbert Comic Strip on 1992-02-11 | Dilbert by Scott Adams
Two stories this past week caught my eye. The first is Nvidia’s revelation of the new, AI-focused Tesla P100 computer chip. Introduced at April’s annual GPU Technology Conference, the P100 is the largest computer chip in history in terms of the number of transistors, “the product of around $2.5 billion worth of research and development at the hands of thousands of computer engineers.” Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said that the chip was designed and dedicated “to accelerating AI; dedicated to accelerating deep learning.” But the revolutionary potential of the P100 is dependent on AI engineers coming up with new algorithms that can leverage the full range chip’s capabilities. Absent such advances, Huang says that the P100 would end up being the “world’s most expensive brick.”
The development of the P100 demonstrates, in case we needed a reminder, the immense technical advances that have been made in computing power in recent years and highlights the possibilities those developments raise for AI systems that can be designed to perform (and even learn to perform) an ever-increasing variety of human tasks. But an essay by Adam Elkus that appeared this week in Slate questions whether we have the ability–or for that matter, will ever have the ability–to program an AI system with human values.
I’ll open with a necessary criticism: much of Elkus’s essay seems like an extended effort to annoy Stuart Russell. (The most amusing moment in the essay is when Elkus suggested that Russell, who literally wrote the book on AI, needs to bone up on his AI history.) Elkus devotes much of his virtual ink to cobbling together out-of-context snippets from a year-old interview that Russell gave to Quanta Magazine and using those snippets to form strawman arguments that Elkus then attributes to Russell. But despite the strawmen and snide comments, Elkus makes some good points on the vexing issue of how to program ethics and morality into AI systems.
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The latest entry in my series of posts on autonomous weapon systems (AWSs) suggested that it would be exceedingly difficult to ensure that AWSs complied with the laws of war. A key reason for this difficulty is that the laws of war depend heavily on subjective determinations. One might easily expand this point and argue that AI systems cannot–or should not–make any decisions that require interpreting or applying law because such legal determinations are inherently subjective.
Ever the former judicial clerk, I can’t resist pausing for a moment to define my terms. “Subjective” can have subtly different meanings depending on the context. Here, I’m using the term to mean something that is a matter of opinion rather than a matter of fact. In law, I would say that identifying what words are used in the Second Amendment is an objective matter; discerning what those words mean is a subjective matter. All nine justices who decided DC v. Heller (and indeed, anyone with access to an accurate copy of the Bill of Rights) agreed that the Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” They disagreed quite sharply about what those words mean and how they relate to each other. (Legal experts even disagree on what the commas in the Second Amendment mean).
Given that definition of “subjective,” here are some observations.
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“Robots won’t commit war crimes. We just have to program them to follow the laws of war.” This is a rather common response to the concerns surrounding autonomous weapons, and it has even been advanced as a reason that robot soldiers might be less prone to war crimes than human soldiers. But designing such autonomous weapon systems (AWSs) is far easier said than done. True, if we could design and program AWSs that always obeyed the international law of armed conflict (LOAC), then the issues raised in the previous segment of this series — which suggested the need for human direction, monitoring, and control of AWSs — would be completely unfounded. But even if such programming prowess is possible, it seems unlikely to be achieved anytime soon. Instead, we need be prepared for powerful AWS that may not recognize where the lines blur between what is legal and reasonable during combat and what is not.
While the basic LOAC principles seem straightforward at first glance, their application in any given military situation depends heavily on the specific circumstances in which combat takes place. And the difference between legal and illegal acts can be blurry and subjective. It therefore would be difficult to reduce the laws and principles of armed conflict into a definite and programmable form that could be encoded into the AWS and, from which the AWS could consistently make battlefield decisions that comply with the laws of war.
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