AI pioneer says its threat to the world may be ‘more urgent’ than climate change

Artificial intelligence could pose a “more urgent” threat to humanity than climate change, AI pioneer Geoffrey Hinton said in an interview with Reuters on Friday.

Geoffrey Hinton, widely known as one of the “Godfathers of AI,” recently announced that he has left AlphabetGOOGL.O after a decade at the company and said he wanted to speak out on the risks of the technology without his former employer be affected by it.

Hinton’s work is considered essential to the development of contemporary AI systems. In 1986 he co-authored the seminal article Learning Representations by Back-Propagating Errors, a milestone in the development of the neural networks underlying AI technology. In 2018 he received the Turing Award for his groundbreaking research.

Could AI take control of the planet?

But he is now among a growing number of tech leaders to publicly express concern about the potential threat posed by AI if machines attained greater intelligence than humans and took control of the planet.

A keyboard is seen on a computer screen displaying the website of ChatGPT, an OpenAI AI chatbot, in this illustrative image taken on February 8, 2023. (Credit: REUTERS/Florence Lo/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

“I don’t want to discount climate change. I don’t want to say, ‘You shouldn’t be worried about climate change.’ That’s also a big risk,” Hinton said. “But I think that might end up becoming more urgent.”

He added: “With climate change, it’s very easy to recommend what you should do: you just stop burning carbon. If you do, eventually things will be okay. For that, it is not at all clear what you should do.”

Microsoft-backed MSFT.O OpenAI kicked off a technology arms race in November when it released the AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT to the public. It soon became the fastest growing app in history, reaching 100 million monthly users in two months.

In April, Twitter CEO Elon Musk joined thousands in signing an open letter calling for a six-month hiatus in the development of systems more powerful than OpenAI’s recently launched GPT-4.

Signers included Emad Mostaque, CEO of Stability AI, researchers from DeepMind, which belongs to Alphabet, and fellow AI pioneers Yoshua Bengio and Stuart Russell.

While Hinton shares the signatories’ concern that AI could prove to be an existential threat to humanity, he did not agree to pausing the research.

“It’s totally unrealistic,” he said. “I’m in the camp that thinks this is an existential risk and it’s close enough that we should be working very hard now and investing 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 by urging US President Joe Biden to convene a global summit with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the future direction of the technology.

Last week, the committee agreed on a groundbreaking set of generative AI proposals that would force companies like OpenAI to disclose any copyrighted material used to train their models.

Meanwhile, Biden held talks with a number of AI business leaders at the White House, including Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, promising an “open and constructive discussion” about the need for companies to be more transparent about their systems .

“Tech leaders have the best understanding of this, and politicians need to be involved,” Hinton said. “It affects us all, so we all have to think about it.”