Sir Nigel Shadbolt - Principal of Jesus College

Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt is one of the UK’s foremost computer scientists, a leading researcher in artificial intelligence and was one of the originators of the interdisciplinary field of web science. Principal of Jesus College Oxford and a professor of computer science at the University of Oxford, he is also chairman of the Open Data Institute, which he co-founded with Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Sir Nigel was knighted in 2013 for services to science and engineering. In 2018 he and Nigel Sampson wrote The Digital Ape: how to live (in peace) with smart machines. 

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The future of AI 

In 1967, Desmond Morris published The Naked Ape, a seminal book that revealed the bare truth about the similarities between Homo sapiens and our mammal cousins. In The Digital Ape, Nigel Shadbolt and Roger Hampson borrow two of Dr Morris’ three words to argue that the defining characteristic of humankind is no longer our nakedness, but our use of digital tools. Now, it is our technologies, rather than ourselves, that need unclothing...

The digital ape has come a long way very quickly, and is still accelerating. We share 96 per cent of our genes with our nearest relative, the chimpanzee — and 70 per cent with a packet of fish fingers. The unique four per cent that makes us human will never completely outwit the ‘animal’ 96 per cent. Nor vice versa. But stupendous multipliers are now available that increase the effects of that four per cent, whose key ingredients are the genes that give us opposable thumbs, which cause us to be tool-makers, and makers of collective wonders like language, culture, and knowledge. Digital instruments, entangled with our very nature, have come to dominate our environment, a new kind of digital habitat, emerging very rapidly.

Humans cannot live without tools. We would already find it extremely difficult to function without sophisticated machines. The changes to us will soon be so ingrained, at first socially, then genetically, that we will find functioning without digital technology almost impossible.

Some simple, marvellous things will never happen. The many millions worldwide who still lack a reliable clean water supply can’t have it delivered by Wi-Fi, spouting from a virtual tap on their smartphone. Wi-Fi and digital communication are a great boon to the poorer places of the world, but they don’t in themselves solve fundamental issues. We in the rich countries can now talk to Alexa in the comfort of our own kitchen, ask her to tell Amazon to deliver bottled water this afternoon. We can communicate easily with the company that pipes our reliable water supply. We can do both of those because of the underlying infrastructure, of dams and reservoirs and pipes; of bottling factories and Amazon fulfilment centres, of road networks and delivery trucks; which coexists with the marvellous new digital technology. The fact is, that although the smartphone is just as miraculous in Eritrea as it is in Edmonton, new technologies can and do coexist in many places with an awful lack of basic facilities, and will not in themselves outweigh their absence.

What is undeniable is that there is no going back. If desired, we could, in principle, pull the plug on Facebook, or the National Security Agency, or legislate against drones or self-driving cars. Or any other particular organisation or digital way of behaving or governing or policing. But we simply cannot remove the technical knowledge and experience on which those developments are based. So something like them is part of the modern landscape, and will remain so.

Emergence, hyper-complexity, and machine intelligence are primarily political and social problems rather than technology problems. The acute danger is that our tools evolve so quickly that they either bamboozle us, or, more likely, lead to a future in which the majority are diminished in favour of a small group of super-enhanced digital elites who make choices for the rest of us. There will not be an AI apocalypse in the strict sense; there will, for the foreseeable future, be humans with the ability to pull the plug if they choose to. But which humans? In the seventeenth century, scientists, philosophers, and poets, from Newton to Pepys to Milton, from Locke to Voltaire to Hobbes, imagined radical changes in how the people understood the world and their place in it. Algorithms and hyper-complex data flows present the most extraordinary opportunities to us. They will continue to increase our wealth, and augment our minds and our sympathies. The digital ape, too, should ideally usher forth a second Age of Enlightenment.

Desmond Morris, 50 years ago, ended The Naked Ape with this warning: ‘We must somehow improve in quality rather than in sheer quantity. If we do this, we can continue to progress technologically in a dramatic and exciting way without denying our evolutionary inheritance. If we do not, then our suppressed biological urges will build up and up until the dam bursts and the whole of our elaborate existence is swept away in the flood.’

In the half-century since Morris wrote this, the world’s human population has doubled. Every other quantifiable account of what we do and what we are has also engrossed and magnified and multiplied. Most significantly, exponentially, in those aspects which have led us to title our book The Digital Ape. Yet the dam has not burst. Far from it. The world is richer, less violent, and happier. In large part, that is precisely because our minds have been augmented by clever machines far more than our suppressed biological urges have been empowered. That will continue.

We will need all of our augmented wisdom to grasp and secure all the possibilities.