Risks and rewards of artificial intelligence

Posted on: 16 October 2017

The risks and rewards of artificial intelligence and the dangers of digital manipulation in the context of news reporting were among topics explored at a public lecture focusing on the ethical, educational and human aspects of the digital society in Trinity College Dublin.

As part of the Behind the Headlines public lecture series, the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute brought together experts from industry and academia to examine the opportunities and challenges presented by the growth of artificial intelligence and to consider whether we are meeting the needs of the digital generation.  

At the event, entitled 'Our Digital World: Who is Serving Whom?', held on Thursday, October 12, Oscar-winning special effects expert and Head of Trinity’s Electronic and Electrical Engineering Department Professor Anil Kokaram discussed the dangers of digital manipulation in the context of news reporting: "The last 100 years of movie making has combined technology and the arts to make it possible to visualise almost anything we can imagine. While footage of a dragon laying waste to College Green can be made to seem very realistic, it would not easily be confused with real news. But cinema effects are used in subtle ways to suspend your disbelief."

"Tom Hanks shaking the hand of Nixon in Forrest Gump is a famous example of careful compositing of real historical events with modern footage to make a new story. In the last ten years the easy availability of compute power and the improvements in algorithms that created those effects, imply that that almost anyone with enough time and care can do the same thing. The big question is can we ever hope to protect the integrity of our news feeds from the weaponisation of this technology. "

Trinity's Professor of Computer Science and Director of the ADAPT Centre Vincent Wade weighed up the risks and rewards of embedded artificial intelligence: "Digital society is increasingly being driven by embedded artificial intelligence which is shaping the information that we are offered, the jobs we do and our perception of the world around us. From AI robots to filtered or personalised information, some industry leaders have warned against potential dangers of the unbridled automation and increasing pervasiveness of artificial intelligence."

Professor of Ecumenics Linda Hogan examined whether we have the imagination and political will to address the ethical questions raised by accelerating developments in big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning: "The ubiquity and convergence of technologies, together with the speed of their development means that many citizens are unaware of the depth of their impact and of the ethical challenges that they may pose. Automation and artificial intelligence bring many benefits, particularly of efficiency and financial gain. However, they also raise fundamental ethical questions that must be addressed, such as: what values are embedded and replicated in machine learning and artificial intelligence? There are also serious questions to be asked about the magnification of bias and discrimination and the risks of moral decision-making by algorithm. We also need to look at issues such as political manipulation, financial monitoring and lack of transparency."

In her talk, Lorna Ross, Group Director at Fjord Dublin, Accenture, focused on the idea of a post human society and how persistent use of digital tools is shaping our habits, beliefs and behaviour in profound ways: "Since the dawn of the industrial age, the idea of a post human society has been considered, with more than a little trepidation. And so, we have finally arrived. The machines we build are smarter than us, and they know it. We have built them to watch us and to learn from us.  They are silent and invisible and talk to each other when we are asleep. The persistent use of our digital tools is shaping our habits, beliefs and behaviours in profound ways. Human evolution is expressed not in our biology but in our technology. The advantage has always been with those who build and control our tools. At the DNA level, we are coding new human attributes, shaped by our omnipresent tools. As the digital self and the physical self morph, will we ever again be in a natural state of ‘human being’?" 

About the 'Behind the Headlines' Series

The Trinity Long Room Hub ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series offers background analyses of current issues from experts from the fields of arts and humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and polarisation, creating a space for informed and respectful public discourse.