The ‘Ghost in the Machine’ debate considers the future of AI

The Ghost in the Machine panel

Will artificial intelligence soon become more intelligent than its creator? As technology continues to play a bigger role in all aspects of our society, it’s more important now than ever to consider the organizing principles behind how it structures our digital lives.

This is just one of the many questions experts, academics, futurists and business leaders discussed at the Ghost in the Machine Technology and the Future of Society event held Jan. 24 at the Bram & Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library.

More than 500 people attended the free public event, which was the second in the Next 100 series spearheaded by the Lassonde School of Engineering. The debate focused on the ways in which technology will continue transforming society. The one-hour panel convened by the engineering school brought together innovators, educators, futurists, technologists and leaders in business and art to debate these issues in front of the live audience.

The Ghost in the Machine panel, from left: Steve Irvine, the founder and CEO Integrate.AI; Huda Idrees, founder and CEO of Dot Health; Jesse Hirsh, futurist and researcher; University of Ottawa Professor Ian Kerr; and York University Professor Regina Rini

Interim Dean of the Lassonde School of Engineering Richard Hornsey introduced the panel, which was moderated by futurist and researcher Jesse Hirsh. Participating in the debate were: Huda Idrees, founder and CEO of Dot Health, a real-time personal health data platform; Steve Irvine, the founder and CEO of Toronto-based company Integrate.AI, which focuses on applied artificial intelligence; University of Ottawa Professor Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology, and a pioneer in the burgeoning field of AI and robotics law and policy and a global leader in the field of privacy; York University Professor Regina Rini, Canada Research Chair in Social and Moral Cognition, and a researcher specializing in moral psychology, ethical theory and neuroscience.

Lassonde School of Engineering Interim Dean Richard Hornsey introduces the panel members to the audience

The panel explored what it means to be human, the inherent assumptions in how we design technology and what scientists, industries and governments can do to ensure that tech benefits us in the future. The panellists debated the responsibility companies have to make tech more equitable, accessible and sensitive to the diversity of human experience.

The discussion introduced many ideas and questions, including: How do we maintain agency in the face of innovative technologies? What are the things we can do to ensure that we get the future that we desire and not the future that we dread? To survive in the job market in the future, what are the most important skills an individual can have?

“There are two events that I’m pretty sure will happen in the next 20 to 30 years, probably around the same time: the first is that computers will pass the Turing test. You will be able to interact with computers that will seem like you’re interacting with people, and when it happens we won’t care very much,” said Rini.

As the debate continued, the academics and business experts drew on their experiences, research and public policy work, and expressed strong beliefs in the responsibilities companies need to take on to ensure that technology is more equitable, accessible and sensitive to the diversity of human experience.

A capacity crowd attended the event

“We are moving from a world where software that runs the majority of our businesses and the majority of the interactions that we have with government and others is moving from a framework that’s deterministic to probabilistic. So, deterministic means we scripted it and we put rules in, and probabilistic means we don’t need to tell it anything,” said Irvine.

Kerr said that more public-facing events are important to consider the myriad of implications associated with artificial intelligence. “We need more public events like this,” he said. “We need the events to be available after the fact online to anybody who wants to watch them. I think that’s an important thing to be doing.”

In keeping with his observation, the full Next 100: Ghost in the Machine debate can be viewed online.

The third Next 100 event will take place this spring and is titled Electric Dreams. It will explore technology and entertainment. More information is available on the Next 100 website.