TED curator Chris Andersen and Greg Brockman, co-founder of the AI ethics research group Open AI, also wrestled with the unintended consequences of powerful machine learning systems at the end of the conference. Brockman described a scenario in which humans serve as moral guides to AI. “We can teach the system the values we want, as we would a child,” he said. “It’s an important but subtle point. I think you do need the system to learn a model of the world. If you’re teaching a child, they need to learn what good and bad is.”

There also is room for some gatekeeping to be done once the machines have been taught, Anderson suggested. “One of the key issues to keeping this thing on track is to very carefully pick the people who look at the output of these unsupervised learning systems,” he said.

Already, groups of researchers are warning that a super-intelligent AI, as Dean described it, will be hard to police. Consider a recent study in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, titled Superintelligence Cannot be Contained. As study co-author Manuel Cebrian of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has noted: “[T]here are already machines that perform certain important tasks independently without programmers fully understanding how they learned it. The question therefore arises whether this could at some point become uncontrollable and dangerous for humanity.”

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