Artificial intelligence not a threat, SXSW hears

Google chairman says he is optimistic that computers and humans make a good team

Society shouldn't fear the rise of artificial intelligence or robots, according to the executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.

Speaking as part of a SXSW panel discussion entitled How Innovation Happens, Schmidt said any kind of singularity – a theory which predicts artificial intelligence (AI) outpacing human intelligence and thus radically changing the nature of mankind – was still decades away. However he said many big innovations were on the horizon. The pace of technological change is something which worries many dystopian technologists who believe singularity may come sooner than we think. Schmidt is not worried.

“Certainly nothing like that is conceivable in the next 20 years. We’re still making baby steps, although we’ve made tremendous progress with respect to AI, but we’re a far way away from any kind of singularity.

“I do believe, however, we’ll have a good computer-based question-and-answering system in the next 20 years, which will include advice. In other words, you could ask Google, how long should I stay at SXSW, or what restaurant should I eat in tonight.


“I’m not a dystopian. I’m a utopian, and I believe technology will make us happier and the world a greater place.”

The way we reach this utopian future is through innovation and entrepreneurship, says Schmidt. “The two are the solutions to almost all of the world’s problems,” he says. “More jobs would solve most problems in all countries. We can achieve that by creating entrepreneurs at any and every level. In the future jobs will be plentiful and the best jobs will be with computers,” he says. “Because the combination of humans and computers is the ultimate team. Computers have infinite memory, and humans have judgment. That duo is the ultimate power.”

Corporate innovation

Asked why big companies don’t seem to be able to innovate as fast as small firms these days, Schmidt argued we are in a different phase. “There have always been big companies that were innovators at different times –




, Procter & Gamble and now Google.

The research arm of search engine giant Google – Google X – is innovating in different fields. They have done research into everything from driverless cars to AI. “Innovation in our space starts by getting a really good team together,” Schmidt said. “At Google X we are always thinking about innovation at scale, with no limitations. . . There are so many problems that can be solved technologically that couldn’t have been a decade ago.”

SXSW Interactive is the initial section of the overall SXSW event, which opened last weekend, and covers music, film, technology, comedy, gaming and entrepreneurship. It is expected up to 100,000 people will attend.

John Holden

John Holden

John Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in science, technology and innovation