Google CEO: Fears About Artificial Intelligence are 'Misguided'

Eric Schmidt
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt speaks at a promotional event for the Nexus 7 tablet in Tokyo September 25, 2012. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt says fears over artificial intelligence and robots replacing humans in jobs are “misguided”. In fact the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful tech companies says AI is likely going to make humanity better.

“These concerns are normal,” he said during a talk the Financial Times Innovate America event in New York this week. "Go back to the history of the loom. There was absolute dislocation… but I think all of us are better off with more mechanised ways of getting clothes made."

He illustrated his point by highlighting how economies have prospered over the years: “There's lots of evidence that when computers show up, wages go up and there’s a lot of evidence that people who work with computers are paid more than people without,” he said.

He went on to say that those who don’t currently work with computers should learn to do so quickly, saying that the “correct concern is what we're going to do to improve the education systems and incentive systems globally, in order to get people prepared for this new world, so they can maximise their income.”

Schmidt argues that machines are a lot more basic than people think they are. He described an experiment that Google carried out three years ago, which was created to see what an artificial ‘brain’ could learn. 10 million still images were fed into the ‘brain’ - a network of 1,000 computers programmed to soak up information in the same way a human brain does.

“It discovered the concept of ‘cat’,” Schmidt said. “I'm not quite sure what to say about that, except that that's where we are.”

However, it would appear that the CEO was perhaps underplaying the extent of robotic development.

At the end of October, DeepMind a London-based AI startup acquired by Google for £225 million earlier this year, unveiled a computer prototype that is capable of mimicking specific aspects of the human brain’s activity. Before Google had even bought it, DeepMind had made computers that were able to play video games in a similar way to humans.  

According to a recent research paper produced by researchers at DeepMind, the computer prototype acts a kind of ‘neural Turing machine', which can access an external memory like a conventional Turing machine. Reportedly it “takes inspiration from both models of biological working memory and the design of digital computers.”

Google has also recently purchased seven robotic firms, including Meka and Redwood Robotics which make humanoid robots, and Industrial Perception, a company which has developed computer vision systems and robot arms for loading and unloading trucks.

AI research teams at Oxford University will be working with Google to improve their robots, "enabling machines to better understand what users are saying to them”. Google is also currently involved in the developin applications that use AI such as self-driving cars.

Schmidt’s speech comes just one week after Stephen Hawkings, theoretical physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, told the BBC that AI “could spell the end of the human race".

In fact, one of the original founders of Google's DeepMind even warned artificial intelligence is the “number one risk for this century”, and believes it could contribute to human extinction. “Eventually, I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this,” DeepMind's Shane Legg said in an interview earlier this year.

Legg’s concern was part of the reason why, when DeepMind was purchased by Google in January, it came with certain condition, including the creation of an ethics board. According to The Information website, the board was put in place to ensure the AI technology is developed safely and in such a way that avoids catastrophic outcomes like those described by Hawkins.