115 minutes | Jul 17th 2019

#61 - Helen Toner on emerging technology, national security, and China

From 1870 to 1950, the introduction of electricity transformed life in the US and UK, as people gained access to lighting, radio and a wide range of household appliances for the first time. Electricity turned out to be a general purpose technology that could help with almost everything people did.

Some think this is the best historical analogy we have for how machine learning could alter life in the 21st century.

In addition to massively changing everyday life, past general purpose technologies have also changed the nature of war. For example, when electricity was introduced to the battlefield, commanders gained the ability to communicate quickly with units in the field over great distances.

How might international security be altered if the impact of machine learning reaches a similar scope to that of electricity? Today's guest — Helen Toner — recently helped found the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University to help policymakers prepare for such disruptive technical changes that might threaten international peace.

Links to learn more, summary and full transcript
Philosophy is one of the hardest grad programs. Is it worth it, if you want to use ideas to change the world? by Arden Koehler and Will MacAskill
The case for building expertise to work on US AI policy, and how to do it by Niel Bowerman
AI strategy and governance roles on the job board

Their first focus is machine learning (ML), a technology which allows computers to recognise patterns, learn from them, and develop 'intuitions' that inform their judgement about future cases. This is something humans do constantly, whether we're playing tennis, reading someone's face, diagnosing a patient, or figuring out which business ideas are likely to succeed.

Sometimes these ML algorithms can seem uncannily insightful, and they're only getting better over time. Ultimately a wide range of different ML algorithms could end up helping us with all kinds of decisions, just as electricity wakes us up, makes us coffee, and brushes our teeth -- all in the first five minutes of our day.

Rapid advances in ML, and the many prospective military applications, have people worrying about an 'AI arms race' between the US and China. Henry Kissinger and the past CEO of Google Eric Schmidt recently wrote that AI could "destabilize everything from nuclear détente to human friendships." Some politicians talk of classifying and restricting access to ML algorithms, lest they fall into the wrong hands.

But if electricity is the best analogy, you could reasonably ask — was there an arms race in electricity in the 19th century? Would that have made any sense? And could someone have changed the course of history by changing who first got electricity and how they used it, or is that a fantasy?

In today's episode we discuss the research frontier in the emerging field of AI policy and governance, how to have a career shaping US government policy, and Helen's experience living and studying in China.

We cover:

• Why immigration is the main policy area that should be affected by AI advances today.
• Why talking about an 'arms race' in AI is premature.
• How Bobby Kennedy may have positively affected the Cuban Missile Crisis.
• Whether it's possible to become a China expert and still get a security clearance.
• Can access to ML algorithms be restricted, or is that just not practical?
• Whether AI could help stabilise authoritarian regimes.

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The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.