IBM CEO assures us that AI won’t attain consciousness

AI panel at World Economic Forum in Davos

Following the appearance of IBM Corp. CEO Ginni Rometty on a panel about artificial intelligence at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Big Blue has released a position paper on the subject.

The paper states that the purpose of AI and cognitive systems as applied by IBM are to assist humans, inferring it will not replace them. It assures us that humans will remain the ones in control of systems using AI.

“Cognitive systems will not realistically attain consciousness or independent agency,” it states. “Rather, they will be increasingly embedded in our processes, systems, products, and services by which business and society function.”

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty at Davos
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty says AI should be designed to enhance human effort, not replace it.

Published on its Think Blog IBM’s paper is and is meant to establish guiding principles for its use of AI for what it refers to as the “cognitive era.” The 105-year-old tech vendor has become well known for its efforts to research AI and turn it into useful products thanks to its Watson brand. The AI program first gained notoriety when it defeated human champions on Jeopardy, proving its mastery of natural language interface.

On the Davos panel, Rometty explains that the cognitive era is one in which artificial intelligence is able to help companies make sense of the massive amount of data it has collected, enabling good decision-making capabilities that weren’t possible before now.

“I consider us the AI platform for business,” she says. “We have to think about how you develop trust for it. One of the ways that you develop trust is through transparency and a set of principles.”

“It’s not going to be man or machine,” she says. “For most of our businesses and companies, it will not be man or machine,” she says. “Our purpose is to be in service of what humans do.”

The principles of transparency important in deploying AI-powered software include stating what the purpose of the AI being applied is, according to IBM’s paper. The sources of data and expertise that inform the AI must also be made clear, plus the methods used to train the machine learning system. Further, clients must own their business models and intellectual property and that remains protected as they use AI to enhance their business.

IBM is committed to working with “students, workers and citizens” to train them on using AI effectively and safely and perform the new jobs that result in an economy powered by cognitive systems, the paper states. Building on that at Davos, IBM’s CEO says the company has identified some key industries where AI can make a difference quickly.

Watson is being rolled out in the healthcare industry around the world, Rometty said on the panel, with Watson acting as an oncology advisor after being trained by “the world’s best oncology advisors.”

“The reason this is worth fighting so strongly to make sure you roll it out right is that you can really solve problems,” she says. “India has one oncologist for 1,600 patients, we’ll never get there without this technology.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella at Davos
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says how AI impacts the economy comes down to design.

Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella sat on the same panel as Rometty at Davos. He said that the next phase of AI is about creating tools so developers can build intelligence into a variety of solutions.

To ensure those tools aren’t used for evil, Nadella said there must be a set of design principles guiding development. For example, AI shouldn’t be made to replace humans.

“It’s augmentation versus replacement,” he says. “It’s purpose is to help humans do what they do better… that’s a design choice.”

Microsoft has been building up its own AI brand under Cortana, an intelligent assistant available in Windows 10, and being embedded into more of its software products as well.


  1. Regarding the noble intentions of “augmentation, not replacement”: free market economics will dictate the terms of use, just like the adoption of industrial robots and the jobs they have displaced. If a corporation can deliver the same outcome without humans, they will replace humans, it’s that simple. Unless governments regulate its use, AI will sweep millions of jobs aside (beginning with most driving jobs in the next decade or two). What these guys are saying is simply untrue and they know it, they’re trying to be reassuring because they realise this is a major threat to employment, far greater than globalisation. With regards to Rometty’s comments about AI not becoming self-aware and attain consciousness, I think that’s disingenuous: how can anybody know that? It is entirely plausible that over time (whether 20 years or 100 years from now) autonomous decision making will become indistinguishable from human consciousness.

  2. Well spoken Cleo. If one considers that every thing has a consciousness, even a rock, perhaps one needs to define what they mean by consciousness when they use the term. I imagine they mean their AI robots won’t have an immortal soul, unless an immortal soul decides to incarnate in an AI robot.


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