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Behind the headlines

Could AI wipe out humanity?

A glimpse into our future? A scene from Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

This week, more than 350 artificial intelligence experts signed a 22-word statement warning that humanity faces “extinction” unless the risks of the technology are properly mitigated. The big danger, says the so-called “godfather of AI” Geoffrey Hinton on The Daily, is that these machines will stop at nothing to achieve what we ask them to do. Say you tasked an advanced AI with making money for you: it would happily break into an online banking system and steal funds, or buy oil futures and foment a revolution in Central Africa to boost prices. These machines are essentially “psychopaths”, devoid of any moral compass.

Our “era of intellectual pessimism” tends to view technology as the source of, rather than a solution to, our problems, says Henry Shevlin in The New European. But when we weigh up the risks, we have to consider the harm caused by doing nothing. Haunted by the ghosts of Chernobyl and Fukushima, for example, we have largely stopped building new nuclear plants, often in favour of polluting fossil fuels. Fears about genetically modified food have stalled the adoption of Golden Rice, a GM crop “capable of saving millions of Vitamin A-deficient children from starvation”. Properly implemented, AI could deliver “profound benefits” for society: in healthcare, it could help formulate new drugs; in education, it could effectively provide every student with a personal tutor. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The truth is that it’s “already too late” for any meaningful pause in AI development, says Iain Martin in The Times. As with the creation of the nuclear bomb in the 1940s, the pressing question is whether democracies or dictatorships get there first. If the West and its allies fail, we will be at the mercy of autocrats who can swarm us with thousands of lethal drones, or deploy sophisticated programmes which “relentlessly search for weaknesses through which to launch cyber attacks and shut down our financial systems”. This is a race “we have to win”.