We may have the ability to create artificial intelligence with many human capabilities, or to produce drastically different species by modifying the genome. Might as well be playing God on the kitchen table, and that’s a really scary possibility. So I worry about those sorts of threats, as well as the threats stemming from our collective interaction with the environment and the climate. And it has struck me and some of my colleagues that there’s not enough attention given to these threats. We want to use the technology optimally and minimize its downsides. Mistakes are getting higher as these techniques get more powerful. That’s why I think it’s very important to ensure that experts focus on how to assess which of these scenarios can be dismissed as science fiction, and which are sufficient that we ought to think about them, and address how we can minimize their impact.
And not enough people are doing this. There’s far less attention given to these sort of potentially existential risks than to very small risks. There are huge numbers of people thinking about the dangers of carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, making planes safer, avoiding train crashes and things of that kind. But the amount of attention given to these high-consequence/low-probability events whose probability is rising all the time as technology gets higher is very low.
And that’s why we in Cambridge have set up a group to try and focus on these. Cambridge, I think, can claim to be the number one scientific university in Europe. We in Europe therefore feel we can do something by using our convening power to get experts together. Experts can’t be right, they’ve got a poor record of predictions but they can do a better job than anyone else in trying to assess which are the concerns we should have high on our agenda and what we can do to minimize them. So that’s what we’re trying to do in Cambridge, to get an interdisciplinary group with a focus on these, to draw on the expertise we have around us nationally and indeed internationally to try and raise these issues up the agenda.