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Does AI really threaten the future of the human race?


The end of the human race - that is what is in sight if we develop full artificial intelligence, according to Stephen Hawking in an interview with the BBC. But how imminent is the danger and if it is remote, do we still need to worry about the implications of ever smarter machines?

My question to Professor Hawking about artificial intelligence comes in the context of the work done by machine learning experts at the British firm Swiftkey, who have helped upgrade his communications system. So I talk to Swiftkey's co-founder and chief executive, Ben Medlock, a computer scientist with a Cambridge doctorate which focuses on how software can understand nuance in language.

WATCH: Stephen Hawking: "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and would be superseded"

Ben Medlock told me that Professor Hawking's intervention should be welcomed by anyone working in artificial intelligence: "It's our responsibility to think about all of the consequences good and bad", he told me. "We've had the same debate about atomic power and nanotechnology. With any powerful technology there's always the dialogue about how do you use it deliver the most benefit and how it can be used to deliver the most harm."

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Take any speculation that full AI is imminent with a big pinch of salt”

Ben Medlock, computer scientist

He is, however sceptical about just how far along the path to full artificial intelligence we are. "If you look at the history of AI, it has been characterised by over-optimism. The founding fathers, including Alan Turing, were overly optimistic about what we'd be able to achieve."

He points to some successes in single complex tasks, such as using machines to translate foreign languages. But he believes that replicating the processes of the human brain, which is formed by the environment in which it exists, is a far distant prospect: "We dramatically underestimate the complexity of the natural world and the human mind, "he explains. "Take any speculation that full AI is imminent with a big pinch of salt."

While Medlock is not alone in thinking it's far too early to worry about artificial intelligence putting an end to us all, he and others still see ethical issues around the technology in its current state. Google, which bought the British AI firm DeepMind earlier this year, has gone as far as setting up an ethics committee to examine such issues.

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