Steven Hawking is considered by many to be one of the finest minds around. He told the BBC recently, "The development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race." Of course, he isn't the first to show concern; however, when someone of his intelligence is using technological advances (with a modicum of AI) to make this statement it does seem the rest of us should pay attention.
I would point out that teachers and professors have been concerned for years, in their own way, demonstrated by my experience as a tutor. Most of us use calculators and spell check (fringe forms of AI) and most of us merely find them a help to do things more quickly. We know our "facts," but in that moment it is quicker and easier to use a calculator or check out the suggestion spell check makes. But there are many who use these features not knowing how to do basic math or spell much of anything. In my tutoring of college students I run across students in upper level math who use the calculator to do operations of the most basic kind. Some don't trust themselves and some truly don't know what 7 plus 8 is. Whatever math skills they may have possessed they have lost confidence in by their use of a calculator.
For English we have spell check on our computers. I recently read a paper where the student declared she "always gets A's" and does better writing at the last hour. She had me read it supposing I'd just marvel at her talent. Within a sentence of the reading I asked, "Do you want me to make corrections?" not adding the rest of what I thought, "so that this makes sense." She happily declared it wasn't necessary; she'd spell-checked it. I would say that it was necessary if she wished someone to understand what she was trying to get across because spell check may have corrected the spelling, but the words it chose to correct the errors were clearly not what she meant to say. I hope that the paper got the C or D that this lack of care deserved. Additionally, we all have had a text or e-mail spell corrected to say something so outlandish that it was grab your gut hysterically funny or grab your gut, "I may throw up" embarrassing if you caught it after pushing "send." That is when you hope the receiver knows you well enough to know that what you sent was not what you meant. We probably would agree that using spell check can be helpful, if you know how to spell the word and know how to use it.
Spelling always came easily to me, but after years of writing papers and my books on computer, relying on spell check to correct my sloppy typing, I have found myself wondering if I have spelled a word correctly when I write a free hand letter or write in my journal using my fountain pen. I find I have lost my edge. (My math skills have actually improved as I challenge myself to get the answers more quickly than my math students who are punching simple equations into their calculators.) Repeating, practicing does increase your skill level. Letting something else do the work for you diminishes your skill level.
Given what this fringe of AI-- calculators and spell check- - does for and to students, I have hearty concerns for the higher levels of AI for which some inventors are reaching. Computers and calculators are already much more capable than humans. Smarter? That word is hard to define without context. Smarter than humans? Again, what exactly do we mean by "smarter?" And what did Hawking mean by "the end of the human race?" I'm not sure in either case, but of one thing I am certain: the use of AI has implications for the human race and some of them are not good.
When we let something or someone else take over for us, there are dangers. And it is a wise human who recognizes this and makes the decision carefully before allowing something or someone to take over. AI already has this down pat. And that should scare us.