Stanford launches 100-year study of artificial intelligence

Scientists will explore what AI means for the economy and society in 30, 50 or even 100 years

Artificial Intelligence
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What will intelligent machines mean for society and the economy in 30, 50 or even 100 years from now?

That's the question that Stanford University scientists are hoping to take on with a new project, the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100).

The university is inviting artificial intelligence researchers, roboticists and other scientists to begin what they hope will be a long term – 100 years long – effort to study and anticipate the effects of advancing artificial intelligence (AI) technology . Scientists want to consider how machines that perceive, learn and reason will affect the way people live, work and communicate.

"If your goal is to create a process that looks ahead 30 to 50 to 70 years, it's not altogether clear what artificial intelligence will mean, or how you would study it," said Russ Altman, a professor of bioengineering and computer science at Stanford. "But it's a pretty good bet that Stanford will be around, and that whatever is important at the time, the university will be involved in it."

The future, and potential, of artificial intelligence has come under fire and increasing scrutiny in the past several months after both renowned physicist, cosmologist and author Stephen Hawking and high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk warned of what they perceive as a mounting danger from developing AI technology.

Musk, speaking at an MIT symposium in October, said scientists should be careful about developing AI technology. "If I were to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that," said Musk, CEO of electric car maker Tesla Motors, and CEO and co-founder of the commercial space flight company SpaceX. "With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. In all those stories with the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, and he's sure he can control the demon. It doesn't work out."

Hawking added to the conversation in an interview with the BBC,, saying scientists should be cautious about creating machines that could one day be smarter and stronger than humans.

"It would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate," Hawking said in the interview. "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."

Stanford's AI project appears to be more focused on what AI can add to society, though the project is looking to keep an eye on development and any direction that might take.

"I'm very optimistic about the future and see great value ahead for humanity with advances in [AI]," said Stanford alumnus Eric Horvitz, director of Microsoft Research's main lab. "However, it is difficult to anticipate all of the opportunities and issues, so we need to create an enduring process."

Tom Mitchell, a professor and chairman of the machine learning department at Carnegie Mellon University, said AI is progressing and it's wise to try to stay a step or two ahead of it.

"We won't be putting the genie back in the bottle," he said in a statement. "AI technology is progressing along so many directions and progress is being driven by so many different organizations that it is bound to continue. AI100 is an innovative and far-sighted response to this trend – an opportunity for us as a society to determine the path of our future and not to simply let it unfold unawares."

The project, at this point, will include scientists from Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of British Columbia and Stanford.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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