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Why Are, Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet, and IBM Working Together?

By Daniel B. Kline – Updated Oct 2, 2016 at 6:10PM

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These unlikely partners are joining forces in a new nonprofit alliance to create artificial intelligence best practices.

Just because a robot looks friendly does not mean it is. Image source: Horia Pernea, Flickr.

Science fiction has been pretty clear on the fact that artificial intelligence (AI), if used incorrectly, could bring about the end of mankind.

From the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, which rose up to destroy most of humanity, to Skynet in Terminator, a computer group mind that, upon gaining sentience, decided man had to go, smart robots generally mean bad news for people. Even the adorable robot boy in Steven Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence brought mostly pain for his adopted family.

For every sassy robot that just wants to help -- like Rosie from The Jetsons -- it feels like we have 10 fictional examples of machines that gain sentience through AI and things go very badly. And while fiction is not reality, the potential for AI going very wrong is real.

That in part is why (AMZN -1.08%), Microsoft (MSFT -0.18%), Facebook (META 1.98%), Alphabet (GOOG -0.17%) (GOOGL), and IBM (IBM 0.17%) have formed the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence. As a nonprofit organization, the group's goal is to advance public understanding of AI technologies and formulate best practices.

What is the Partnership on AI doing?

The partnership brings together these tech titans to deliver on some noble ideals. On its website, the group lays out its goals, mission, and tenets:

The objective of the Partnership on AI is to address opportunities and challenges with AI technologies to benefit people and society. Together, the organization's members will conduct research, recommend best practices, and publish research under an open license in areas such as ethics, fairness, and inclusivity; transparency, privacy, and interoperability; collaboration between people and AI systems; and the trustworthiness, reliability, and robustness of the technology.

In addition to laying out its purpose, the group also makes it clear that "it does not intend to lobby government or other policymaking bodies."

Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet, and IBM will each contribute financial and research resources to the partnership and will share leadership with independent third parties, including academics, user group advocates, and industry domain experts, according to the press release. The nonprofit will include "equal representation of corporate and non-corporate members on its board."

Why is this important?

Anything that gets Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet, and IBM working together deserves attention.

"AI technologies hold tremendous potential to improve many aspects of life, ranging from healthcare, education, and manufacturing to home automation and transportation," the group has said. "Through rigorous research, the development of best practices, and an open and transparent dialogue, the founding members of the Partnership on AI hope to maximize this potential and ensure it benefits as many people as possible."

The partnership also plans to advance public understanding and awareness of AI. That's important when most people know little about the technology aside from seeing IBM's Watson AI beat human beings on the TV show Jeopardy. That may be a trivial display of the technology, but it's easy to see how a super-smart game-show-winning robot might scare people.

This is an example of a group of leading technology companies putting business aside in order to work toward the public's benefit. Of course, the partnership will create parameters for Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Alphabet, IBM, and others to do business in this space, but the group does seem to have the greater good as its primary goal.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors.  Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook and Microsoft. He would like an R2 unit. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares),, and Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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