Steven Hawking Mulls AI at Web Summit: Will It Save Us or Destroy Us?

Steven Hawking Mulls AI at Web Summit: Will It Save Us or Destroy Us?

by Dianna Dilworth

The tech community must adopt responsible AI development in order to ensure that advances in technology benefit humanity and don’t destroy it.

This theme of responsibility towards the promise of technology and awareness of the perils, echoed through the presentations during the opening night at Web Summit in Lisbon this week.

Keynote speaker Steven Hawking, who was teleconferenced in to the show, said that AI could either the best or worst thing to happen to humanity. The reknowned scientist pointed out that AI computers could surpass humans intellectually within a few decades, which means that we have to begin to establish regulatory and ethical rules today.WebSummit

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world,” he said. “That it can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance. Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

Nuno Sebastião, Feedzai CEO and co-founder, who introduced Hawking said that his company is pushing the industry to adopt an AI code of ethics to build systems which “are fair, verifiable, benefit society, and do no harm,” but did not elaborate on what those look like.

Bryan Johnson, founder of Kernel, a company which is developing tools to better understand the brain in order to treat neurological diseases, called for data privacy rights. He compared the innovations coming in the next decade or so to a category 5 hurricane about to bear down. He stressed that if we prepare for the upheaval, we can make the most of the new opportunities. In the new era, in which he imagines interfaces will be able to stream thoughts and fantasies in real time, that data privacy should be a human right.

But practically speaking, will companies actually embrace rules or will they claim that regulations stifle innovation and competition? Kara Swisher, executive editor of Re/code, interviewed Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for competition at the European Commission, about her tough challenges. One of the major issues facing the Commission today is the fact that corporate taxation was invented when a company was physically present in a country. In today’s digital world, in which companies can exist in a country with only a server, the rules need to be rewritten, said Vestager.
As we saw in the revelations in the Paradise Papers this week, tech leaders like Apple can move their money to avoid taxation. The group is working on new ways to write regulations that takes into account the modern economic world, which involves more transparency in the full history of a company in order to establish fair taxation.

As a European, Vestager is confident that people want democracy more than they want technology and says that technology must work for us or it won’t work at all. She says the next issue is whether we can trust technology or not. “If we don’t relearn to trust technology then we’ll never make the most of the potential,” she warned.

Antonio Guterres, secretary general of the UN, called for the tech industry to team up with governments, academia, scientists and citizens in order to plan for the changes technology will usher in. As technology takes away jobs previously done by humans, we must prepare for the consequences. “Science and technology are not value neutral,” he said.

But Guterres warned that traditional forms of regulation can’t respond to the fast changing world we are facing with new technologies, so we must establish new forms of discussion groups to help respond to the inevitable change that tech will bring.

The opening night ended on a hopeful note. António Costa, the prime minister of Portugal and Fernando Medina, the mayor of Lisbon, presented Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit CEO, with a compass. Speaking about Portugal’s rich history of ocean exploration, they called on the technologists in the audience to set out on the next “great adventure to connect humankind.”

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