Obama on the Risks of AI: ‘You Just Gotta Have Somebody Close to the Power Cord’

Today, Wired published an extensive interview between President Barack Obama — who edited this month’s issue of the magazine — and Joi Ito, the director of MIT’s Media Lab. In the interview (conducted by Scott Dadich, who edits Wired when the president isn’t), the two men discuss everything from artificial intelligence to computers to their favorite science-fiction movies. (Like Taylor Swift, Obama was a big fan of 2015’s The Martian and he thinks we’re a “reasonably long way away” from living in The Matrix.)

At one point in the interview (which you can read in full here), Dadich asks Obama about the potential dangers society faces as AI becomes more and more ingrained in our lives. Specifically, “about AI’s potential to outpace our ability to understand it.” (Read: What happens when the computers get smarter then we are?) For Obama, the current concern still seems to be less about “machines taking over the world,” as it is with the humans using machines to take over the world.

From Wired:

There could be an algorithm that said, “Go penetrate the nuclear codes and figure out how to launch some missiles.” If that’s its only job, if it’s self-teaching and it’s just a really effective algorithm, then you’ve got problems. I think my directive to my national security team is, don’t worry as much yet about machines taking over the world. Worry about the capacity of either nonstate actors or hostile actors to penetrate systems, and in that sense it is not conceptually different than a lot of the cybersecurity work we’re doing. It just means that we’re gonna have to be better, because those who might deploy these systems are going to be a lot better now.

To this, Ito adds that it’s unlikely we’ll need to be concerned about the powers of this kind of generalized AI in the next decade. Instead, it’ll be a gradual process, marked by cumulative breakthroughs, giving people (and the government) time to prepare. And if that doesn’t work, Obama’s got some ideas about how to keep AI in check. “And you just have to have somebody close to the power cord,” he joked to Wired. “Right when you see it about to happen, you gotta yank that electricity out of the wall, man.”

Obama Isn’t Stressed About Artificial Intelligence Yet