On 31 March, Geoffrey Hinton – a 75-year-old British-Canadian scientist who won the 2018 Turing Award, the “Nobel of computing”, for his foundational work in AI – resigned from Google, where he had guided AI research for a decade. One recent evening he returned to King’s College, Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate in the 1960s, to address an expectant audience. Hinton had come to Cambridge to deliver a message: the threat of a super-powerful AI was real and immediate. “I decided to shout fire,” he told a packed lecture hall. “I don’t know what to do about it or which way to run.” It may be, he added, that humans are “a passing stage in the evolution of intelligence”.
Hinton was expressing a familiar fear. “It seems probable that once the machine thinking method had started,” Alan Turing predicted in 1951, looking ahead to a world of intelligent machines, “it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers… At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control.”