Artificial intelligence (AI) could potentially pose a greater threat to humanity than climate change, according to AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton. Hinton, who is widely known as one of the “godfathers of AI”, recently left Alphabet after working there for a decade. He wants to speak out on the risks of technology without it affecting his former employer. Hinton’s work is seen as vital to the development of contemporary AI systems. In 1986, he co-authored the seminal paper “Learning representations by back-propagating errors”, which was a milestone in the development of the neural networks underpinning AI technology. In recognition of his research breakthroughs, he was awarded the Turing Award in 2018.

Hinton is now amongst a growing number of tech leaders that are publicly expressing concern about the possible threat posed by AI if machines were to achieve greater intelligence than humans and take control of the planet. He said, “I wouldn’t like to devalue climate change. I wouldn’t like to say, ‘You shouldn’t worry about climate change.’ That’s a huge risk too. But I think this might end up being more urgent.” Hinton added, “With climate change, it’s very easy to recommend what you should do: you just stop burning carbon. If you do that, eventually things will be okay. For this, it’s not at all clear what you should do.”

In November, Microsoft-backed OpenAI launched AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT, making it available to the public, and it quickly became the fastest-growing app in history, reaching 100 million monthly users in two months. In response, Twitter CEO Elon Musk, along with thousands of others, signed an open letter calling for a six-month pause in the development of systems more powerful than OpenAI’s recently-launched GPT-4. Signatories included Stability AI CEO Emad Mostaque, researchers at Alphabet-owned DeepMind, and fellow AI pioneers Yoshua Bengio and Stuart Russell.

While Hinton shares the signatories’ concern that AI may prove to be an existential threat to mankind, he disagreed with pausing research and said, “It’s utterly unrealistic. I’m in the camp that thinks this is an existential risk, and it’s close enough that we ought to be working very hard right now and putting a lot of resources into figuring out what we can do about it.”

In the European Union, a committee of lawmakers responded to the Musk-backed letter, calling on US President Joe Biden to convene a global summit on the future direction of technology with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The committee agreed on a landmark set of proposals targeting generative AI, which would force companies like OpenAI to disclose any copyright material used to train their models.

Biden also held talks with a number of AI company leaders, including Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman at the White House, promising a “frank and constructive discussion” on the need for companies to be more transparent about their systems. Hinton said, “The tech leaders have the best understanding of it, and the politicians have to be involved. It affects us all, so we all have to think about it.”


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