Rational machines are no threat to humanity, says UJ’s Prof Marwala

The eternal discussion of Man vs. Machine will be never ending even though the benefits of automation and other technologies are thoroughly understood. Cost benefits, time efficiency and consistency are major driving factors for organisations to focus on technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) and Artificial Intelligence.

As we are living in the era of artificial intelligence (AI), there are some big questions that we ought to ask. Are machines more rational than humans? Can rationality be measured? Is group rational decision-making more rational than individual decision making? Is machine rationality subjective? These were substantial questions unpacked during a dialogue between distinguished scholar Prof Thaddeus Metz and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Vice-Chancellor & Principal, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala entitled ‘The Ontology of Machine Rationality.’ The event took place on Wednesday, 12 March 2018 at the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS).

Prof Marwala, the author of Handbook of Machine Learning, premeditated whether AI machines are more rational than humans and concluded that even though machines and humans are both bounded rationally because of the trade-off between model complexity and model dimension as well as the limitation of optimisation routines, intelligent machines are more rational than human beings.

“Rational decision making in its linguistic description means making logical decisions. In essence, a rational agent optimally processes all relevant information to achieve its goal. Rationality has two elements and these are the use of relevant information and the efficient processing of such information. In reality, relevant information is incomplete, imperfect and the processing engine, which is a brain for humans, is suboptimal. Humans are risk averse rather than utility maximizers,” explained Prof Marwala.

“In the real world, problems are predominantly non-convex and this makes the idea of rational decision-making fundamentally unachievable and Herbert Simon called this bounded rationality. There is a trade-off between the amount of information used for decision-making and the complexity of the decision model used. This explores whether machine rationality is subjective and concludes that indeed it is,” said Prof Marwala.

During the dialogue, Prof Thaddeus Metz, UJ Distinguished Professor in Philosophy reconsidered the maximizing view of rationality with a notion that an action is rational just insofar as it maximizes the good and minimizing the bad in the long run. “It would be irrational to programme an automated system, or for AI to decide, only in ways that maximize outcomes- for human rights, amongst other considerations, are also rational to observe,” said Prof Metz.

Watch the full dialogue here

Prof Marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala


Prof Thaddeus Metz

Prof Thaddeus Metz

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