Cyborg off his Christmas tree

December 21, 2000

Kevin Warwick distorts the image of artificial intelligence, say Simon Colton and the committee of the UK's biggest AI society.

It often seems as if we cannot win in artificial intelligence. On the one hand, people such as Roger Penrose say that computers will never be intelligent. On the other, those such as Kevin Warwick say that robots will soon be intelligent enough to take over the world.

It is important to remember that these are individual predictions of the future. Just as astrologers draw on astronomy, "computologers" such as Penrose and Warwick exploit computer science to predict our future. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but it has been our mistake in AI to let the opinions of computologers go largely unchallenged.

Therefore, we at the largest and oldest AI society in Britain, the committee of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour (SSAISB), have decided to take a stand. We are particularly worried about the education of children through the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures that Kevin Warwick is to present. With such high-profile events lending credence to computologers, we can no longer remain silent and keep a clear conscience.

Although Warwick probably will not scare the children by announcing that in their 50s they will be the slaves of robots, he has often repeated this claim. The tale has always sold well, from War of the Worlds to Terminator . It would not be so bad if these stories were just there to make people think, but Warwick has gone further, becoming a masterful self-publicist on fashionable but debatable science. In one stunt, a doctor placed a microchip under Warwick's skin to communicate with computers.Warwick claimed to be a cyborg, but, unless he intended to walk around naked, the same effect could have been achieved with a badge on his shirt. More seriously, this "experiment" trivialised important technology such as pacemakers.

So, what can AI do when faced with stories of doom and Hollywood-style destruction? How can the truth compete with such hyperbole? First, computologers such as Penrose use ill-defined words such as "creativity", "emotion" and "understanding" to claim that computers will never be intelligent. AI researchers are working hard to reclaim these words. In particular, the SSAISB is organising a conference covering emotion, creativity, consciousness and society. Second, to discourage people such as Warwick, we refrain from making predictions about the long-term future of AI. Instead, we go about our business by automating tasks that humans use intelligence to achieve, including proving theorems, harmonising melodies, finding protein structures and beating chess grandmasters.

Warwick is often presented as an AI expert. But, as his opinions are in many respects far removed from the majority view in AI, we feel that he is not a spokesman for our subject and that allowing him influence through the Christmas lectures is a danger to the public perception of science.

The last thing we want to do is silence Warwick or people like him. Debating our technological future is important, but it must be a reasoned debate rather than a series of tantalising stories. It is important for the public to see the other side of the coin because the predictions of computologers are not, in our opinion, shared by the majority of AI researchers.

Luckily, some people in the public eye share our misgivings. Jeremy Paxman recently said that Warwick was "either a visionary or a publicity-mad lunatic". While the previous Christmas lecturers have included truly visionary professors, we strongly believe this is not true of Warwick.

Simon Colton, on behalf of the SSAISB Committee ( ).

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