Microsoft’s Brad Smith cites Boeing crisis as cautionary tale for intelligent machines, calls for AI kill switch

Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire / Dan DeLong)

For decades, sci-fi movies have predicted a future in which humans lose control of intelligent machines and chaos ensues. Those apocalyptic portrayals of artificial intelligence may seem like a distant or unrealistic future. But the seeds of a reality in which we lose control of the machines we build are being sewn today.

That’s according to Microsoft President Brad Smith who stumped the crowd at the GeekWire Summit — our annual technology conference in Seattle — with a simple question. “What is the biggest software-related issue to impact the economy in Puget Sound in 2019?”

“Software in the cockpit of an airplane, software that the pilots couldn’t turn off,” Smith said.

Smith was referring to the multi-billion dollar fallout from Boeing’s faulty 737 Max software that resulted in two crashes killing 346 people. Boeing’s manufacturing center is based in Renton, Wash. The company has announced more than $8 billion in costs related to the accidents and the damage to airlines and suppliers extends far beyond that.

The flights reportedly crashed because software tried to push the noses of the aircrafts down repeatedly, due to inaccurate flight data, and the pilots were not able to address the problem in time.

“That should speak to us,” Smith said. “That is not just something that should speak to one company or just one industry. It should speak to everybody who creates technology, who uses technology, in every part of society, and that’s a lesson we should remember. We’ve got to be able to create good technology and we’ve got to be able to turn it off.”

In the fireside chat and in his new book, “Tools and Weapons,” Smith urged the technology industry and government to come together to address the looming threats of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“We are the first generation that will decide how machines will make these decisions, what kind of ethical principles will guide their decision making,” he said. “No pressure, but we better get it right.”

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