It’s great news that the Leverhulme Trust is granting £10m to Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risks (CSER). The money will fund an important new interdisciplinary research centre, the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, to explore the opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence, both short and long term.
Dr Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh. CSER’s Executive Director, says that the Centre will look “at themes such as different kinds of intelligence, responsible development of technology, and issues surrounding autonomous weapons and drones.”
Prominent figures associated with CSER include professor Stuart Russell, a world-leading AI researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor Stephen Hawking, who famously said that if and when artificial general intelligence does arrive, “it’s likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity.” So no pressure, then.
It is interesting that this funding should come from the trust founded by a brilliant entrepreneur and philanthropist, William Lever, who created a lucrative global business from soap – a business which helped create the consumer goods giant Unilever. Lever established a model town for his employees at Port Sunlight, in Cheshire, because he wanted to provide the sort of decent living standards which were rare among industrial workers at the time. Today, the Leverhulme Trust provides £80m a year in research funding to the UK.
But like many people of good will in those days, Lever was a deeply paternalistic man, and his commercial activities in the Congo, where he sourced palm oil, caused great suffering. This provides an interesting metaphor for the future of AI. Our actions are so heavily affected by the morality of our time: how well we understand the world around us, and how well we can predict the impacts of our progress. The next decades of AI research will generate great good, but we also need to avoid the potential for considerable harm.