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Future of Life: Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn claims AI development is different this time

Sam Shead | April 28, 2015
Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned that uncontrolled development of AI could have serious consequences on humanity.

Honda humanoid robot Asimo
Honda's humanoid robot Asimo of how humans are making increasingly intelligent robots ©Flickr/Ars Technica

Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn believes the latest surge in the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies is "different" to previous advances in the controversial subject area.

The Estonian entrepreneur, who is working closely with a number of AI companies and researchers through the Future of Life Istitute (FLI) that was backed by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking earlier this year, told Techworld that the history of AI development has traditionally been a series of summers (peaks) and winters (troughs).

In the summers, AI companies make advances and get lots of investment but in the winters the money dries up and companies rename it to something like "machine learning", Tallinn said.

"There's something very different about this AI summer," he said at a hotel in London's Soho district last week, while plugging his new instant messenger app, Fleep, which he has cofounded with ex-Skype colleague Henn Ruukel. "There are quick ways to make money from marginal advances in AI. Once you make a ranking algorithm one percent better, that immediately means a few hundred million dollars for Google."

The claim comes amid growing fears that machines are going to surpass the capabilities of humans in both the jobs market and many other areas of life.

Through Future of Life, which was cofounded with MIT professor Max Tegmark, Tallinn said he wants to bring together two schools of thought: the "physicists and the philosophers" who are concerned about the long term about what happens when humans "lose control of atoms" and, on the other side, the technology companies who are focused on the short term and making machines more competent at helping us.

Jaan Tallinn at the Ham Yard Hotel in London's Soho neighbourhood Techworld/Sam Shead

Tallinn has invested in three AI companies, including the UK's DeepMind, which was acquired by Google last year for a sum thought to be around $400 million (£264 million). The other two, Vicarious and Dextro, are in New Jersey and New York respectively.

Despite investing in companies working on advancing AI, Tallinn said he tries not to lean one way or the other.

"By doing that you get that us vs. them effect," he said. "I try to be the mutual guy in the middle that seems reasonable to both sides."

More precautions needed

An open letter published by the Future of Life Institute in January warned that more precautions need to be taken around the further development of AI.

The letter argues that scientists and technologists need to safely and carefully coordinate and communicate advancements in AI to ensure it does not grow beyond humanity's control.


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