Is Artificial Intelligence the biggest threat to humanity?

With autonomous technology coming on leaps and bounds in recent years, as demonstrated by Google’s self-driving cars, some of science and engineering’s most prominent figures have voiced concerns that Artificial Intelligence could pose a real threat to mankind.

Artificial Intelligence

When British theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking makes his views known on a subject, the world sits up and listens. So when Professor Hawking suggested that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could “supersede” the human race, we all took stock. Add in support from across the Atlantic, in the form of Tesla founder Elon Musk, and the damning case against AI gathered momentum.

But what exactly is AI and is it really as big a threat as we’re lead to believe?

Definition of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the intelligence exhibited by machines or software. It's an academic field of study which studies the goal of creating intelligence. Major AI researchers and textbooks describe this field as “the study and design of intelligent agents”, where an intelligent agent is a system that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chances of success.

American computer scientist, John McCarthy, who coined the term in 1955, defines it as "the science and engineering of making intelligent machines".

The end of the human race?

As part of an in-depth interview with the BBC, Professor Hawking expressed his concern that continued attempts to develop technology that can think for itself could lead to the eventual downfall of mankind.

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate," Professor Hawking said. "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded," he added gloomily.

Tesla chief, Elon Musk, preached similar caution. “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful,” he was widely reported to say.

With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out

Mind the ‘humanity gap’

According to Mark Bishop, professor of cognitive computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, machines will always lack fundamental human abilities like understanding and consciousness.

"This lack means that there will always be a 'humanity gap' between any artificial intelligence and a real human mind. Because of this gap a human working in conjunction with any given AI machine will always be more powerful than that AI working on its own," Professor Bishop told the Independent newspaper.

"It is precisely this that prevents the runaway explosion of AI that Hawking refers to – AI building better AI until machine intelligence is better than the human mind, leading to the singularity point where the AI exceeds human performance across all domains," he added.

Can the AI industry be regulated?

“I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish,” says Musk.

The UK is doing just that, as researchers at the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool and the West of England, Bristol have set up a new project to address concerns that might arise around these new technologies. Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the £1.4M project will continue until 2018.

"This project brings together world-leading teams from these three universities to develop formal verification techniques for tackling questions of safety, ethics, legality and reliability across a range of autonomous systems," explains Professor Michael Fisher, principal investigator at Liverpool.

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