Could the development of powerful Artificial Intelligence cause us harm?
It is a technology so powerful that, on some day in the future, it could mean computers that are able to advise doctors on the best way to treat patients, tackle climate change and environmental problems or feed everyone in the world. With such potential power, comes huge responsibility.
Demis Hassabis, the head of Google's £400m machine learning business and one of the world's leading authorities on the subject, has now called for a responsible debate about the role of ethics in the development of artificial intelligence. "I think artificial intelligence is like any powerful new technology, It has to be used responsibly. If it's used irresponsibly it could do harm.'
"We engage very actively with [the artificial intelligence] community - at MIT, at Cambridge, at Oxford - so there are a lot of academic institutes thinking about this and we engage with them very actively and openly with our research. "I think there are valid concerns and they should be discussed and debated now, decades before there's anything that's actually of any potential consequence or power that we need to worry about, so we have the answers in place well ahead of time."
Mr Hassabis was responding to concerns about the development of artificial intelligence raised, among others, by Elon Musk, the technology entrepreneur and a DeepMind investor, and Professor Stephen Hawking. Hawking said that artificial intelligence could "end mankind".
Mr Hassabis is not at the "robots" end of artificial intelligence. His work focuses on learning machines which are able to sift huge amounts of data and support human understanding of the exponential rise of digitised information. "Artificial intelligence is the science of making machines smart," he said.
"If we're able to imbue machines with intelligence then they might be able to help us as a society to solve all kinds of big problems that we would like to have a better mastery of - all the way from things like disease and healthcare, to big questions we have in science like climate change and physics, where having the ability for machines to understand and find insights in large amounts of data could be very helpful to the human scientists and doctors."
His world is a long way from Hollywood's take on artificial intelligence. Terminator or the beguiling Ava in Ex Machina might make for "good entertainment" but the world is fanciful. Computers, Mr Hassabis says, are nowhere near being able to ape human behaviour or over take human thinking.
"Terminator is one of those examples that is very iconic, but extremely unrealistic in a number of ways. Certainly that's not what I worry about." Mr Hassabis said. "It's more where there are unintended things, something you might have missed, rather than people intentionally building systems to control weapons and other things."
This touches on the knotty subject of regulation. Who is overseeing the development of artificial intelligence which, whatever its present limitations, does have the potential to fundamentally change the way we live? Some have described its development as being as significant as embryology research and the ability to manipulate DNA.
Mr Hassabis said that Google is setting up an ethics committee to look at the work his company is doing. "General AI is still in its infancy," he said. "So I think for a very long time it will be a complementary tool that human scientists and human experts can use to help them with the things that humans are not naturally good at, freeing up the human mind to make the leaps in imagination that I think humans are particularly well suited to."
He reveals that there is already a lot of "dialogue" with official bodies, including the UK government. "I think it's much too early to think about regulation," Mr Hassabis said. "We're very early in this technology phase, so we don't really know yet what the right things would be to regulate. It's not as simple as something like embryology where there's physical stuff where you say: 'Do we want this?'.
London is doing rather well in artificial intelligence. DeepMind is based in King's Cross and has grown to a 150-strong company of mathematicians and computer scientists. Mr Hassabis urged the UK not to squander its leading position in the developing sector.
There is a new book out called 'Surviving AI
' by Calum Chace on the topic of the threats and opportinities of the coming artificial intelligence revolution:
Artificial intelligence is our most powerful technology, and in the coming decades it will change everything in our lives. If we get it right it will make humans almost godlike. If we get it wrong… well, extinction is not the worst possible outcome.
“Surviving AI” is a concise, easy-to-read guide to what’s coming, taking you through technological unemployment (the economic singularity) and the possible creation of a superintelligence (the technological singularity).