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Here are some of the ways experts think AI might screw with us in the next five years

Here are some of the ways experts think AI might screw with us in the next five years


Remember: forewarned is forearmed

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

When we talk about the dangers posed by artificial intelligence, the emphasis is usually on the unintended side effects. We worry that we might accidentally create a super-intelligent AI and forget to program it with a conscience; or that we’ll deploy criminal sentencing algorithms that have soaked up the racist biases of their training data.

But this is just half the story.

What about the people who actively want to use AI for immoral, criminal, or malicious purposes? Aren’t they more likely to cause trouble — and sooner? The answer is yes, according to more than two dozen experts from institutes including the Future of Humanity Institute, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and the Elon Musk-backed non-profit OpenAI. Very much yes.

“I do see this paper as a call to action.” 

In a report published today titled “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation,” these academics and researchers lay out some of the ways AI might be used to sting us in the next five years, and what we can do to stop it. Because while AI can enable some pretty nasty new attacks, the paper’s co-author, Miles Brundage of the Future of Humanity Institute, tells The Verge, we certainly shouldn’t panic or abandon hope.

“I like to take the optimistic framing, which is that we could do more,” says Brundage. “The point here is not to paint a doom-and-gloom picture — there are many defenses that can be developed and there’s much for us to learn. I don’t think it’s hopeless at all, but I do see this paper as a call to action.” 

The report is expansive, but focuses on a few key ways AI is going to exacerbate threats for both digital and physical security systems, as well as create completely new dangers. It also makes five recommendations on how to combat these problems — including getting AI engineers to be more upfront about the possible malicious uses of their research; and starting new dialogues between policymakers and academics so that governments and law enforcement aren’t caught unawares.

Let’s start with potential threats, though: one of the most important of these is that AI will dramatically lower the cost of certain attacks by allowing bad actors to automate tasks that previously required human labor.

Take, for example, spear phishing, in which individuals are sent messages specially designed to trick them into giving up their security credentials. (Think: a fake email from your bank or from what appears to be an old acquaintance.) AI could automate much of the work here, mapping out an individuals’ social and professional network, and then generating the messages. There’s a lot of effort going into creating realistic and engaging chatbots right now, and that same work could be used to create a chatbot that poses as your best friend who suddenly, for some reason, really wants to know your email password.

AI enables human actors to replicate actors effortlessly

This sort of attack sounds complex, but the point is that once you’ve built the software to do it all, you can use it again and again at no extra cost. Phishing emails are already harmful enough — they were responsible for both the iCloud leak of celebrity’s pictures in 2014, as well as the hack of private emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. The latter not only had an influence on the 2016 US presidential election, it also fed a range of conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, which nearly got people killed. Think about what an automated AI spear-phisher could do to tech-illiterate government officials.

The second big point raised in the report is that AI will add new dimensions to existing threats. With the same spear phishing example, AI could be used to not only generate emails and text messages, but also fake audio and video. We’ve already seen how AI can be used to mimic a target’s voice after studying just a few minutes of recorded speech, and how it can turn footage of people speaking into puppets. The report is focused on threats coming up in the next five years, and these are fast becoming issues.

And, of course, there is a whole range of other unsavory practices that AI could exacerbate. Political manipulation and propaganda for a start (again, areas where fake video and audio could be a huge problem), but also surveillance, especially when used to target minorities. The prime example of this has been in China, where facial recognition and people-tracking cameras have turned one border region, home to the largely Muslim Uighur minority, into a “total surveillance state.”

These are just examples of AI’s capacity to scale becoming a threat. It replaces the humans who watch the feeds, turning CCTV camera from passive into active observers, allowing them to categorize human behavior automatically. “Scalability in particular is something that hasn’t got enough attention,” says Brundage. “It’s not just the fact that AI can perform at human levels at certain tasks, but that you can scale it up to a huge number of copies.”

Finally, the report highlights the entirely novel dangers that AI creates. The authors outline a number of possible scenarios, including one where terrorists implant a bomb in a cleaning robot and smuggle it into a government ministry. The robot uses its built-in machine vision to track down a particular politician, and when it’s near, the bomb detonates. This takes advantage of new products AI will enable (the cleaning robots) but also its autonomous functions (the machine vision-based tracking).

The first AI-powered attacks are already emerging

Outlining scenarios like this may seem a bit fantastical, but we’ve really already begun to see the first novel attacks enabled by AI. Face-swapping technology has been used to create so-called “deepfakes” — pasting the faces of celebrities onto pornographic clips without their consent. And although there have been no high-profile cases of this to date, we know those involved in creating this content want to test it out on people they know; creating perfect fodder for harassment and blackmail.

These examples only take in a portion of the report, but the whole document leaves you wondering: what’s to be done? The solutions are easy to outline, but will be challenging to follow through on. The report makes five key recommendations:

  • AI researchers should acknowledge how their work can be used maliciously
  • Policymakers need to learn from technical experts about these threats
  • The AI world needs to learn from cybersecurity experts how to best protect its systems
  • Ethical frameworks for AI need to be developed and followed
  • And more people need to be involved in these discussions. Not just AI scientists and policymakers, but also ethicists, businesses, and the general public

In other words: a little more conversation and a little more action please.

It’s a big ask considering what a complex and nuanced subject artificial intelligence is, but there have been promising signs. For example, with the rise of deepfakes, web platforms reacted quickly, banning the content and stopping its immediate spread. And lawmakers in the US have already started talking about the problem — showing that these debates will reach government if they’re urgent enough.

“There’s certainly interest,” says Brundage of government involvement in discussing these topics. “But there’s still a sense that more discussion needs to happen in order to find out what are the most critical threats, and what are the most practical solutions.” And in most cases, he says, it’s difficult to even judge what will be a threat when. “It’s unclear how gradual all this will be — whether there’ll be a big catastrophic event, or whether it’ll be a slow rolling thing that gives us plenty of opportunities to adapt.”

“But that’s exactly why we’re raising these issues now.”