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Artificial Intelligence made big leaps in 2022 — is that exciting or scary?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

So was 2022 the year that advancements in artificial intelligence made the world a much scarier place, or does it just feel that way? Put another way, did I write this introduction, or did a chat bot?

Brian Christian is author of the bestselling book "The Alignment Problem," and he's here to help us look back and forward at the impact AI is having on our lives. Good to have you here.

BRIAN CHRISTIAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Well, in addition to everything we just heard about, this was also the year that a piece of art generated by AI won a prize at the Colorado State Fair. This was the year a Google engineer claimed that an AI chat bot was sentient, even though many experts later downplayed his claim. Put all this together and, like, what kind of a headline would you write about AI in 2022?

CHRISTIAN: I think this is really the year that AI research went mainstream. A lot of these systems have been kind of brewing within research labs for the last several years, but this is really, I would say, the grand debut in terms of actually having real-world impact and being the kind of thing that now millions of people are actively using every day.

SHAPIRO: So if this isn't necessarily new technology but newly public technology, what does that mean? Like, what does it mean that all of this is now publicly, recognizably in our faces?

CHRISTIAN: I think a lot of the concerns that people had about this technology that existed in the academic literature as hypothetical problems have now become real problems that we need to figure out and muddle through in real time. Whether that's the sort of concerns of plagiarism or using intellectual property, whether that is, you know, the ability to create misinformation and toxic speech, all of these things that people had been worrying about as possible downstream consequences of this technology - well, now, you know, the rubber has hit the road. And we actually have to deal with it.

SHAPIRO: The abstract suddenly became real.

CHRISTIAN: Very much.

SHAPIRO: So when you hear about these kinds of new advances, where do you emotionally land on the spectrum between excited and terrified?

CHRISTIAN: I wouldn't say that I'm on the spectrum between excited and terrified. I would say I feel very excited and very terrified.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Both can coexist at the same time.

CHRISTIAN: Indeed.

SHAPIRO: What's the one big AI innovation that you are holding your breath to see, whether in a positive or negative way?

CHRISTIAN: I think that we currently have systems that can do amazing things with language. We have systems that can do amazing things with visual imagery. There are a lot of exciting advances in robotics, and I think there is a sense of collective holding of breath to see what happens when we can actually integrate these things together. What does it mean to have a system that can both use language in this seemingly human-level fluency but also move around the world physically and understand what it's looking at? I think that's the road that we're on at the moment.

SHAPIRO: What - is that, like, a robot that moves through the world? Is that a virtual reality, immersive ecosystem? What is that?

CHRISTIAN: I think we're probably going to see a little bit of all of the above. So that might be domestic robots that, you know, help fold your laundry or something like that. I think it's, in the shorter term, more likely to be assistants that help you on your computer, but they can actually see what's on your screen, so they could navigate a website for you and purchase your airline tickets or do a bunch of, you know, scholarship research for you on the internet - that sort of thing. I think those systems are going to be more and more a part of just how we navigate the world digitally and then, in the longer run, physically, too.

SHAPIRO: Something to look forward to in 2023. That is Brian Christian. He writes about the human implications of computer science, and he's author of the book "The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning And Human Values." Oh, by the way, I did write that introduction. Brian Christian, thanks a lot.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
William Troop
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.