Can creative, originality-generating AIs be our partners in saving the world?


At A/UK, we’re chiefly driven by climate crisis these days - and what politics, powers and democracy will be sufficient to avert some of the challenges facing us.

But we have also, and always, been interested in another major coming crisis - which is the exponential nature of technological and biological innovation. And how its disruptions and transformations can be turned to benefit the mass of citizens. The ideal being that the productivity of these innovations can give us enough time and space to reshape our lives in a planet-friendly way.

Yet sometimes - and particularly around the technologies of Artificial Intelligence - it’s startling just how transformative they are. More and more, the idea of machine learning assisting humans in their struggle to master the complexities of their environment - whether natural or human - is becoming credible and practical.

Yet one case picked up by the BBC brings that new relationship down to earth. If the AI has contributed its ingenuity to the invention of a product or technique, shouldn’t it be on the patent, along with its human colleagues? Reports the BBC:

The AI has designed interlocking food containers that are easy for robots to grasp and a warning light that flashes in a rhythm that is hard to ignore. Patents offices insist innovations are attributed to humans - to avoid legal complications that would arise if corporate inventorship were recognised.

The academics say this is "outdated". And it could see patent offices refusing to assign any intellectual property rights for AI-generated creations.

As a result, two professors from the University of Surrey have teamed up with the Missouri-based inventor of Dabus AI to file patents in the system's name with the relevant authorities in the UK, Europe and US.

Dabus was previously best known for creating surreal art thanks to the way "noise" is mixed into its neural networks to help generate unusual ideas. Unlike some machine-learning systems, Dabus has not been trained to solve particular problems. 

Instead, it seeks to devise and develop new ideas - "what is traditionally considered the mental part of the inventive act", according to creator Stephen Thaler

The first patent describes a food container that uses fractal designs to create pits and bulges in its sides. One benefit is that several containers can be fitted together more tightly to help them be transported safely. Another is that it should be easier for robotic arms to pick them up and grip them.

The second describes a lamp designed to flicker in a rhythm mimicking patterns of neural activity that accompany the formation of ideas, making it more difficult to ignore.

Law professor Ryan Abbott told BBC News: "These days, you commonly have AIs writing books and taking pictures - but if you don't have a traditional author, you cannot get copyright protection in the US.  So with patents, a patent office might say, 'If you don't have someone who traditionally meets human-inventorship criteria, there is nothing you can get a patent on.'

"In which case, if AI is going to be how we're inventing things in the future, the whole intellectual property system will fail to work." Instead, he suggested, an AI should be recognised as being the inventor and whoever the AI belonged to should be the patent's owner, unless they sold it on.

The mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy recently published a book on the rise of AI creativity in other areas, like music.

Yet we’re beginning to hear the counter-argument against AI’s being granted any kind of autonomy or agency - and it’s deeper than the obvious idiocy of killer robot soldiers. This is based on a reverse of the famous Turing Test - where if a computer convinces us that it’s a human at the other end of the conversation, we could call that artificial intelligence. But what about the other option - that the test become easier to pass because the humans are becoming more machine-like?

This is the argument of a new book, Re-engineering Humanity by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger. The LSE review of the book draws out an extremely important point - the way that much recent political theory has already been casting humans as “predictably irrational”:

They present an open challenge to behavioural economists and their emphasis on devising strategies for nudging people towards predefined choices.

However, while the latter think that nudge merely represents a form of benevolent libertarian paternalism (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling book Nudge being a notable example), Frischmann and Selinger see in it the kernel of techno-social engineering: that is, humans losing their autonomy and being pushed towards becoming more machine-like.

In their criticisms, the authors seem to claim – with strong persuasive power – that the mystery and unpredictability at the heart of being human are being eroded.

…At the end, Frischmann and Selinger come up with one core human characteristic that distinguishes them from machines: free will. Unsurprisingly, this is also the attribute most challenged by datafication.

If humans become fundamentally knowable and mouldable (which is the twin promise of data analysis and nudging strategies based on such analysis), then humans become incapable of thinking and acting independently and, therefore, are rendered indistinguishable from computers as deterministic machines.

It is here that the authors call for a new humanism, which they frame, very abstractly, in terms of a restoration of human dignity and autonomy. {Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future does the same].

Are we really in a battle between pro- and anti-human when it comes to the exponential powers of AI? What if an AI’s powers to calculate the overwhelming environmental and human data of the world comes up with plans and proposals to drastically reduce the carbon impact of one or other sector? Do we reject that if it the only human hand involved was the one that posed the initial question?

Difficult to think this through. But the cognitive power of artificial intelligences is going to be with us through all of our planetary crises. So that we can harness them to development and progress, we had better start.