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Google’s Eric Schmidt downplays fears over artificial intelligence

AUSTIN — Arguably the most alarming part of concerns over artificial intelligence’s potential to end human civilization is the voices that are speaking out. Proven technology visionaries — from Bill Gates to Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking — have warned about the dangers of artificial intelligence. Given humans’ generally poor track record for predicting the future, it stands to reason that the forward thinkers could identify huge technology risks while the rest of us live in ignorance.

But Monday at SXSW, a tech thinker with a long résumé, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, offered reassurance that we don’t need to be so worried right now.

“I think that this technology will ultimately be one of the greatest forces for good in mankind’s history simply because it makes people smarter,” Schmidt said during a keynote address with author Walter Isaacson and Megan Smith, U.S. chief technology officer.

“I’m certainly not worried in the next 10 to 20 years about that. We’re still in the baby step of understanding things,” Schmidt said. “We’ve made tremendous progress in respect to [artificial intelligence].”

He highlighted benevolent uses of artificial intelligence, such as Google Voice and Google’s translation services. Indeed, from antilock brakes to your iPhone’s autocorrect function, artificial intelligence already surrounds us, with favorable results.

“Stuff beyond that is, at this point, really speculation,” Schmidt said. “I’m not a dystopian. I’m a utopian, if you phrase it that way.”

As chairman of Google, Schmidt has a unique vantage point on how artificial intelligence is impacting our world and how it will continue to do so. Google is a leader in the space. In February, DeepMind, a Google acquisition, devised an algorithm that taught itself to beat Atari video games. While there’s reason to see Schmidt’s views as reassuring, it’s also worth noting that as the chairman of a leader in artificial intelligence, he has an incentive to underplay the downside of artificial intelligence. If the general public or regulators move to hamper artificial intelligence, Google’s businesses could suffer.

Later in the talk, Schmidt singled out machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, as having huge potential to reshape our world for the better.

“I think the biggest trend is going to be the use of machine intelligence of large data sets to solve every problem,” Schmidt said. “I can’t think of a field of study, a field of research — whether it’s English, soft sciences, hard sciences or any corporation — that can’t become far more efficient, far more powerful, far more clever.”

Related: The 12 threats to human civilization, ranked