The frightful five: friends or foes?

Mon, 5th Jun 2017
PREVIEW

Richard O’Leary says private investment in science rivals government investment – which is a scary prospect.

Richard O’Leary says private investment in science rivals government investment – which is a scary prospect.

I thought you guys would like this one.

There was a story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about tech companies replacing governments, as the builders of the future.

The story by Farhad Manjoo says Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft will spend about $81 billion on scientific research this year.

To put that in perspective, in 2015 the US Government spent $90 billion in non-defence related scientific research.  

So the Frightful Five, as Manjoo has called them, go nearly dollar for dollar with the US Government.

Which at first glance looks fine. It seems only fair considering how much money they make from us. In fact, you could say it’s downright altruistic and deserves to be praised.

But as one of my mentors once told me, be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it. 

Or was that a Disney movie? Anyway, my point is this may not be the perfect outcome for our combined futures.

Last year Stephen Hawking warned the world that artificial intelligence (AI) could be the greatest disaster in human history if it is not properly managed.

The famous physicist said AI could create powerful autonomous weapons and new ways to control the masses. 

Now if that is the case, and who am I to argue with a bloke who worked out that it was necessary to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory, surely it matters who owns that information.

For example, Hawking also says AI could have great benefits and potentially erase poverty and disease. Now who would you rather be in charge of those potential breakthroughs – Google which is answerable to no one, or a parliament, which faces an election every few years?

Hint: Just think for a few seconds about what some pharmaceutical companies have done with life-saving drugs – would tech companies be any better at putting people before profit?

But maybe I’m being pessimistic, several tech companies are sharing their breakthroughs, and many of us are better for it. This could soon see autonomous cars on a road near you, and tens of thousands of lives are expected to be saved around the world.

So in that spirit of optimism and hope, I’ll leave the last word to the great man himself, Stephen Hawking:

 

“We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity. So it’s a welcome change that people are studying instead the future of intelligence.”