Thursday 20 October 2016 8:00 am

Stephen Hawking: Artificial intelligence research crucial to the human race

The UK is about to further boost its status as a world leading centre for artificial intelligence (AI) with the launch of a new centre in Cambridge which is set to explore the implications the technology holds for humans.

Officially opened by Professor Stephen Hawking on Wednesday, the £10m Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence (CFI) will bring together top researchers from across computer science, philosophy, social sciences and other disciplines such as law and politics to explore the development of AI and both the opportunities and challenges it brings.

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“Success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation,” said Hawking.

“But it could also be the last – unless we learn how to avoid the risks. Alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one – industrialisation.”

Watch: Stephen Hawking on artificial intelligence

It is funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which backs research and education projects across the UK, and will bring together experts from the University of Cambridge, Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and the University of California, Berkeley as well as the Centre for research in the arts, social sciences and humanities at Cambridge.

Milestone breakthroughs in AI technology have caused some to raise concerns over its potential power, and even Hawking, one of the world’s top scientific minds has expressed caution on the development of machines which can think with human level intelligence.

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Research projects the institute will embark on include analysing the effect of AI on our sense of self and being human as well as safety, regulation and policy around the technology.

A group of MPs last week called for a government strategy on AI and automation to assess its impact on society, the economy and jobs.

The opening of the centre also follows hot on the heels of some of the world’s biggest tech companies forming their own group to ensure the ethical development of AI. Google’s DeepMind – the UK AI startup set up by Cambridge graduates that the tech giant acquired for millions in 2014 – Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM formed the Partnership on AI group outlining similar goals to CFI.

Speaking at the opening, Hawking said he believes there is little difference between what can be achieved by the human brain and a computer – and machines could even surpass our own intelligence.

"In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which. That is why in 2014, I and a few others called for more research to be done in this area. I am very glad that someone was listening to me. The research done by this centre is crucial to the future of our civilisation and of our species," he added.