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article imageOp-Ed: Sundar Pichai thinks AI will be bigger than fire and electricity

By James Walker     Jan 25, 2018 in Technology
Google CEO Sundar Pichai suggested AI will have a bigger impact on humanity than fire or electricity in comments this week. Google is committing to AI as a critical component of future society, even though it remains unclear what role it will fulfil.
Fire, electricity, AI
AI's still widely acknowledged to be in early days. Modern AI is advanced enough to accurately identify faces and record voices. It lacks complex planning capabilities or logical reasoning though, which means its possible applications remain limited. Consumer scepticism is high, despite the efforts of tech companies to promote AI through digital assistance and connected home hardware.
Pichai's looking ahead though, beyond AI's current state of affairs. Last week, he told a new show hosted by MSNBC and Recode that AI will prove to be one of the most significant developments in humanity's history. He recognised there are potential hazards, likening AI to fire that has to be harnessed and controlled to maintain safety.
"AI is one of the most important things that humanity is working on. It's more profound than, I don't know, electricity or fire," Recode reports Pichai said. "[Fire] kills people, too. They learn to harness fire for the benefits of humanity, but we have to overcome its downsides, too."
South Korean grandmaster Lee Se-Dol plays against AlphaGo during the Google DeepMind Challenge Match...
South Korean grandmaster Lee Se-Dol plays against AlphaGo during the Google DeepMind Challenge Match in Seoul on March 9, 2016
Jung Yeon-Je, AFP
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Over the next decades, AI's almost certain to gain increased relevance in society. The vision presented by tech firms including Google suggests AI will allow individuals and enterprises to be more efficient.
Your smart home will complete menial tasks automatically while digital bots and agents form the frontline of customer support desks at businesses. AI could also contribute to global challenges such as climate change and disease prevention.
While AI will undoubtedly become an important part of society, there are lingering concerns around the ethics of the technology. Pichai said we should be "thoughtful" about the technology as it's deployed into new roles. Ethics could prove to be the deciding factor when considering if AI's more significant than past human developments. Any early ethical slips could destroy general confidence in the technology.
AI: Just the latest digital evolution?
Pichai's decision to compare AI to two natural processes, fire and electricity, is revealing of Silicon Valley's current stance of the technology. Both processes, which proved so important to the development of modern society, were human discoveries, rather than direct inventions.
Human technological progress, such as the creation of digital computers and the Internet, typically has a shorter span of relevance than the epochal shifts enabled by scientific understanding.
Each new development tends to ride on the achievements of the previous one, instead of starting an entirely new era of its own. If AI succeeds the Internet in a similar manner, it could be later superseded itself by something else entirely. Each new technological evolution remodels society in its own way.
Google presented a bold vision of the future beyond search engines and smartphones at its annual I/O...
Google presented a bold vision of the future beyond search engines and smartphones at its annual I/O conference
Google/ Twitter
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When asked whether Silicon Valley is painting an overly optimistic "shiny happy future" view of AI, Pichai suggested the real question is whether society is ready for profound change. He warned people should "embrace" AI, because "history shows that countries that pull back don't do well with change."
It remains to be seen just how significant this change will be – an evolution similar to the Internet's development, or a civilisation creator like fire and electricity. One thing seems certain: AI's going to remain the biggest topic in the tech industry over the next few years.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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