Many fear Artificial Intelligence as the road to robots taking over the world -- are they right?

Disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and encryption hold the promise of solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. Future innovations relying on their use are endless: creating remote health care for the elderly and people with disabilities, for instance, or protecting our privacy and creating smart cities that can reduce waste and ease congestion.

But some people look at these innovations with a deep sense of fear, envisioning a future where robots take over our jobs and eventually eclipse us. It’s an understandable fear – and one that’s long been popularized by the movies and the media. It’s even become a polarizing battle within the tech industry itself, with Elon Musk warning about the possible misuse and militarization of AI, while tech execs, including Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, call Musk’s views misleading and alarmist. 

This disconnect puts the AI community at a crossroads. In June, Google pulled back on an AI project with the Pentagon after its own employees expressed reservations about using AI for military purposes. But as Fortune magazine editor Alan Murray put it, “Empowered employees have generally pushed their employers in good directions in recent years. But in this case, they got it wrong.”

The problem with fears about AI is that giving in to them means American companies are forfeiting the race for AI to other nations.

And AI is not the only race we’re locked in against other nations. Quantum computing is another technological shift that has major implications for everything we do – from how we live and work to how we practice medicine and exchange goods and services. Our computers run on a binary system of zeros and ones, or, alternatively, “yes” and “no.” But computer scientists are working to develop a system that could work beyond the binary – a both/and, yes/no, zero/one answer.  It may sound like an obscure logic game – but it would actually be a revolutionary shift in computing. If we harness it ethically and intelligently, it could unlock many of the mysteries that confound us in medicine, mechanics and engineering. 

We need to approach this technology, and others, with integrity and courage.

An example of this is encryption technologies that work like a complex combination lock: The owner knows the code and can access the information that’s been encrypted, but everyone else must test all possible combinations to unlock it. If, however, quantum computing becomes a reality, then it will be possible to run all combinations at the same time, allowing the country that develops it to decrypt any and all encrypted data worldwide.

These are big changes, and we need to approach them thoughtfully and seriously. But we should not let fear hold us back from pushing forward.

The problem, as Apple CEO Tim Cook observed in a recent interview, is not “machines thinking like people” or having human-like capabilities. Instead, we should be afraid of “people thinking like machines.” We must strive to prioritize ethics above all else and remember that these systems are only as virtuous as we are. 

Prioritizing ethical behavior doesn’t mean completely abandoning these technologies. Far from it – AI can actually empower us to act ethically, improving and even saving lives.

As an example, take self-driving vehicles. Beyond opening up countless hours for leisure and productivity, self-driving vehicles could save the tens of thousands of Americans who die in traffic accidents every year. Even the Pentagon project that Google opted out of has the potential to save lives. As Murray pointed out, by targeting drones more specifically, we’re able to keep more innocent civilians out of harm’s way.

The race to AI is here, and right now, the U.S. is in it. Innovative technology from companies such as Nvidia, Uber and Lyft have the potential to eliminate traffic accidents and expand mobility; Qualcomm’s AlertWatch uses AI to improve patient health and reduce hospital stays; and Amazon, Microsoft and Google are developing AI to enhance accuracy in medical records and doctor’s visits.

The possibilities really are endless.  

But we need to approach this technology, and others, with integrity and courage. It will take candor and an ongoing conversation between industry and government to be successful. I remain confident that – as long as we remember to think like humans and not like machines – we can create machines that reinforce and strengthen our collective humanity.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and a NYT best-selling author.