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Tech Group To Set Industry Standards For Artificial Intelligence


Artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly, the ethics surrounding it are not. We are talking about an increasingly normal feature of life. When you talk with your smartphone or use Google Translate, you're using AI.

What bothers scientists is the looming moment that AI starts making life or death decisions for us. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: When I say artificial intelligence, a lot of people think science fiction, like the famous scene in the film from "2001: A Space Odyssey."


DOUGLAS RAIN: (As HAL 9000) I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me. And I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

SYDELL: It's well past 2001, and artificial intelligence is here. Mostly it's doing a lot of helpful tasks, prioritizing what comes up in email, finding the fastest route to get home from the office, or even deciphering scratchy handwriting on envelopes at the post office.

Eric Horvitz is the managing director of Microsoft Research Redmond Lab.

ERIC HORVITZ: People often think about what's coming next in AI as some sort of a big disruption that happens all of a sudden. But many advances have been going on and on for years.

SYDELL: But Horvitz admits that as AI is used for more tasks, it's raising ethical questions that need to be answered not by competing companies, but by a large group of scientists from many places. So now, Microsoft has joined other major companies including Facebook, Google, Amazon and IBM to back a nonprofit partnership on AI.

Horvitz says the partnership will discuss areas such as how self-driving cars will make decisions, like should it save the life of a driver or careen into a group of five people?

HORVITZ: Part of the discussion we'd love to see in this partnership is to think deeply about these kinds of situations and systems that negotiate them, and come up with best practices for the industry and beyond.

SYDELL: And the partnership is also about educating the public.

Oren Etzioni, the CEO of the Allen Institute for AI in Seattle, believes that's great because there are a lot of misconceptions about AI. For example, he believes the benefits of self-driving cars outweigh the ethics problems.

OREN ETZIONI: We have extensive statistics showing how many people are killed due to human error. If we have a program that is ever vigilant, that knows to hit the brake, the thing that we'll see is a large drop in the number of people who are dying.

SYDELL: Etzioni hopes the new partnership will get the word out that artificial intelligence is more likely to save lives, than end civilization as we know it.

Laura Sydell, NPR News

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 28, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to HAL, from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, as a robot. In fact, HAL was a computer.
Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.