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A creative triumph?

Ahn Young-joon/AP/PA

RELAX: the AI apocalypse has been cancelled. A rash of recent headlines blared that Google was developing a “kill switch to stop a robot uprising against humans“, as The Telegraph put it, with a picture of a menacing metal army.

It may come as little surprise to learn that the technical paper on which the stories were based described a prosaic engineering problem, not ways to stop the Terminator in its tracks. But the excitable coverage reveals how deeply the challenges posed by artificial intelligence have seeped into public consciousness.

We have had machines that can out-calculate us for decades. Now a new wave is outperforming us on tasks ranging from image recognition to video-gaming. They might soon do our jobs better than we can (see Find your meaning) and may even challenge us in areas as sacrosanct as creativity.

Such superintelligent machines could revolutionise everything from transport to social care. But their rise raises tricky questions about everything from human survival to theology. New Scientist went in search of answers at a private meeting of researchers, philosophers and ethicists organised by Rustat Conferences at Jesus College, Cambridge, UK.

Not so killer

Concern that smart machines might do away with us has been brewing since the advent of modern computers in the 1950s, but was confined to the wilder fringes of AI. In recent years, however, a school of thought led by the philosopher Nick Bostrom has made this “existential risk” a mainstream talking point. His 2014 book Superintelligence won over technocrats like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, and later public figures like …

Leader: “Why you should worry about intelligent machines

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