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AI will not kill us, says Microsoft Research chief

Microsoft Research’s chief has stated that he is confident that intelligence systems pose little threat to human life if they achieve consciousness. Eric Horvitz’s position on this matter contrasts to other leading thinkers. Professor Stephen Hawking explained last December that such machines could “spell the end of the human race”. As well as this, Mr Horvitz revealed that “over a quarter of all attention and resources” at his research unit were now focused on AI-related activities. He said; “There have been concerns about the long-term prospect that we lose control of certain kinds of intelligences. I fundamentally don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that we will be very proactive in terms of how we field AI systems, and that in the end we’ll be able to get incredible benefits from machine intelligence in all realms of life, from science to education to economics to daily life.”

Mr Horvitz heads up a team of over 1,000 scientists and engineers at Microsoft’s research wing.  Already, the division’s work on AI has helped give rise to Cortana – which is a voice-controlled virtual assistant which runs on the Windows Phone platform and shortly, it will come to desktop PC’s when Windows 10 is released. Mr Horvitz stated that he believed Cortana and their rivals would spur on development of the field. He stated; “The next if not last enduring competitive battlefield among major IT companies will be artificial intelligence. The notion that systems that can think, listen, hear, collect data from thousands of user experiences – and we synthesise it back to enhance its services over time – has come to the forefront now. We have Cortana and Siri and Google Now setting up a competitive tournament for where’s the best intelligent assistant going to come from and that kind of competition is going to heat up the research and investment, and bring it more into the spotlight.”

The comments made by Mr Horvitz were posted online in a video marking his receipt of the AAAI Feigenbaum Prize – an award for “outstanding advances” in AI research. However, whilst the Microsoft executive describes himself as being “optimistic” about how humans could live side-by-side artificial intelligence, others are much more cautious. The physicist Professor Hawking has cautioned that machines that were conscious would develop at an ever-increasing rate as soon as they began to redesign themselves. He said; “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”   Elon Musk, who is the chief executive of the car company Tesla and rocket-maker SpaceX, has suggested that Al does pose the greatest “existential threat” humankind faces. In October, he explained to an audience of students; “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. Didn’t work out.”

The Spectrum computer’s inventor Sir Clive Sinclair has gone even further, stating he believes it is unavoidable that artificial intelligence will wipe out mankind. He explained; “Once you start to make machines that are rivalling and surpassing humans with intelligence, it’s going to be very difficult for us to survive. It’s just an inevitability.” Many recent and forthcoming films have also focussed on how people may face the potential threat of AI, these films include; Avengers: Age of Ultron, Transcendence, Ex Machina, Chappie and Terminator Genisys.  By no surprise, Mr Horvitz voiced a preference for 2014’s Her, charting the relationship of a flirtatious Cortana-like app and its owner. However, he did acknowledge one particular issue: AI systems risk invading people’s privacy, since they will become capable of making ever-deeper inferences about users by “weaving together” the mass of data generated by human activities. However, he did add, AI itself may provide a solution to this particular issue.

He said; “We’ve been working with systems that can figure out exactly what information they would best need to provide the best service for a population of users, and at the same time then limit the (privacy) incursion on any particular user. You might be told, for example, in using this service you have a one in 10,000 chance of having a query ever looked at… each person only has to worry about as much as they worry about being hit by a bolt of lightning, it’s so rare.” He went to say; “So, I believe that machine learning, reasoning and AI more generally will be central in providing great tools for ensuring the privacy of folks at the same time as allowing services to acquire data anonymously or with only low probabilities of risk to any particular person.”   

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