AI is bigger threat than terror, says scientist

Uncanny valley: In one interview, Sophia said she would “destroy humans”. © Getty

Is artificial intelligence the greatest threat to humanity? The incoming president of the British Science Association believes that AI is more dangerous than climate change or terrorism.

Rising temperatures. Drug-resistant diseases. Suicide attacks. According to top physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili, all of these pale in comparison to the threat posed by artificial intelligence (AI).

As some of the world’s greatest minds gathered for the British Science Festival this week, Al-Khalili warned that AI alone has the power to solve or catastrophically worsen the “big challenges facing humanity”, including terrorism, climate change and world poverty.

Others share his fears. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said AI will be “more dangerous than nukes”, while the late Stephen Hawking thought it “could spell the end of the human race”.

Many of us already interact with AI in our homes and on our phones through Alexa and Siri — which employ machine learning to get better at understanding and predicting our commands. More widely, the ability of AI computers to learn from huge amounts of data could lead to rapid advances in health care, energy and transport.

Androids could be the next step. Sophia, a humanoid robot that can converse with people, has been granted full Saudi Arabian citizenship.

But Al-Khalili fears advances in AI could also expose nations to terror.

“If Russian cyber hackers were able to meddle with the 2016 US elections, then what is stopping cyber terrorists from hacking into any future AI controlled power grids [or] military installations?” he asked.

Another worry is that advancements in AI technology could leave millions of low-skilled workers jobless. Supermarket Marks & Spencer has already replaced most of its call centre staff with AI.

Hawking feared that AI even could “supersede” humanity by achieving intelligence beyond our understanding.

This may already be happening. Knowing only the basic rules of chess, in a few hours, the AlphaZero program developed a level of skill in the game that took humans 1,500 years to gain.

“AI is going to transform our lives in the coming decades even more than the internet has,” Al-Khalili concluded. “Let’s make sure we’re ready for it.”

Is AI really the greatest threat to humanity?

I, Robot

We should be scared, say some. Beyond cyber terrorism and mass unemployment, AI will open a whole new world of dangers we cannot yet imagine. One day soon, these computers may become so intelligent that they will make decisions for us that we cannot understand or control. Where will that leave humanity?

AI is our greatest hope, argue others. Already, intelligent computers are diagnosing diseases faster, making transport safer and personalising education. As Al-Khalili says, as long as we regulate the industry responsibly, nothing but AI could solve the many crises faced by humanity. We’re doomed without it.

You Decide

  1. Will AI save or destroy the human race?
  2. Could a robot ever be conscious?


  1. Think of a representation of artificial intelligence or robots in popular culture. Write a paragraph about what this representation reveals about our fears around technology as a society.
  2. Imagine robots have taken over the world in the far-flung future. Write a letter back to 2018, telling the story of how this happened and what the world looks like now.

Some People Say...

“With artificial intelligence we’re summoning the demon.”

Elon Musk

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Professor Jim Al-Khalili has joined other prominent voices in the scientific community in warning about the dangerous posed by artificial intelligence. In June, 2,400 researchers signed a pledge declaring that they will not participate in building lethal autonomous weapons — which are robots that use artificial intelligence to identify and kill people without human control — and calling on world governments to ban them.
What do we not know?
What the capabilities of AI will be in the future. Scientists disagree over whether computers will ever become more intelligent than humans and what the potential consequences would be. Al-Khalili fears a public backlash against AI, which could stop governments using it responsibly and make the danger worse by pushing research underground.

Word Watch

A self-driving car manufacturer. In 2016, a driver was killed while driving a Tesla vehicle when his car failed to recognise a lorry stretching across the road in front of him.
Stephen Hawking
The celebrated physicist, who wrote A Brief History of Time, died in March after suffering from motor neurone disease for decades. The computer he used to speak used basic AI technology.
Alexa and Siri
Alexa is a home assistant developed by Amazon that obeys voice commands to order items online, suggest music to listen to and much more. Siri is a similar assistant available on iPhones.
Machine learning
Technology that allows computers to learn and adapt their behaviour in a way that mimics humans.
Sophia was developed by engineer David Hanson. She is able to make eye contact, recognise human faces and understand speech. She can also respond with a range of facial expressions.
To take the place of someone or something.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.