Google CEO Still Insists AI Revolution Bigger Than Invention of Fire

File photo of Google’s chief executive Sundar Pichai in Brussels on Jan. 20, 2020.
Photo: Virginia Mayo (AP)

The artificial intelligence revolution is poised to be more “profound” than the invention of electricity, the internet, and even fire, according to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who made the comments to BBC media editor Amol Rajan in a podcast interview that first went live on Sunday.

“The progress in artificial intelligence, we are still in very early stages, but I viewed it as the most profound technology that humanity will ever develop and work on, and we have to make sure we do it in a way that we can harness it to society’s benefit,” Pichai said.

“But I expect it to play a foundational role pretty much across every aspect of our lives. You know, be it health care, be it education, be it how we manufacture things and how we consume information. And so I view it as a very profound enabling technology. You know, if you think about fire or electricity or the internet, it’s like that, but I think even more profound,” Pichai continued.

The strange part is that Pichai never actually strictly defines artificial intelligence, a term that’s often abused when people don’t bother to nail down a definition.

Whether you agree with Pichai or not, it’s obvious that he’s right about one thing: Whatever happens with AI needs to be for society’s benefit. But again, Pichai never defines what he’s talking about. Would the invention of the atomic bomb be viewed as something for society’s benefit? The people who worked on the Manhattan Project may have been ethically conflicted about it, but they rationalized their work by recognizing what would happen if the Nazis built nuclear weapons first.

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As the interview pivoted to the national security implications of AI—the stuff dystopian science fiction is made of—Pichai remained optimistic that society would use technology for good.

“I definitely think there will be a competitive aspect to it. There’ll be national security aspects to it. And those are all important questions. But where I draw the parallel to climate changes is profound enough that you’re not going to reach safety on a unilateral basis because the world is connected,” Pichai said.

“And and so for you to truly solve for, you know, peaceful coexistence with AI, you would again need over time global frameworks and constructs. And everyone will get affected the same way, just like climate. And I think that’s what will draw people together,” Pichai continued.

“Nothing is a given. We have to get there, but I do think as the world becomes more prosperous, when there is economic growth, everyone wants the same thing at the end,” Pichai said. “To some extent, you know, people want to do well, they want peace. And so, you know, you build on those ideals and connect places together.”

The entirety of human history would likely disagree with Pichai, but who knows? Maybe human civilization will change for the better in the 2020s and robots will conduct our wars while leaving humans alone, as they imagined in the 1930s. The idea was that you’d let two sides battle it out with nothing but robots, and whoever won the war with the most robots standing at the end was declared the winner. It was idealistic but surprisingly common in the interwar period after World War I and before World War II.

Amazingly, it’s not the first time Pichai has compared the coming AI revolution to the most important inventions in the history of humanity. Pichai made similar comments in February of 2018.

And while we don’t have fully autonomous robot tanks stalking city streets and killing dissidents, we’re not far off technologically. So while know one knows if Pinchai is correct or not, we’re hoping he’s correct. If Pichai is wrong, we’ve got a world of pain in front of us.

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Matt Novak