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Oscar Williams

News editor

Oxford’s chief computer scientist says there hasn’t been any substantial progress towards general AI

Scientists are no closer to creating conscious machines now than they were a decade ago, Oxford University’s head of computer science, Professor Michael Wooldridge, told British peers yesterday.

Speaking at the first session of the House of Lords’ select committee on artificial intelligence (AI), Wooldridge said major advances have been made in narrow AI, but that general AI is not yet in sight.

“That’s a very nebulous goal and I would say, possibly provocatively – and this is the sort of discussion you’d have a over a pint of beer – that actually there hasn’t been any substantial progress in general AI,” he said.

“We’re beginning to get there with better ideas about the brain, but all the progress in AI over the last decade which is real and exciting has been on narrow AI.”

While solving general intelligence could lead to the invention of machines that are self-aware, narrow AI involves computers carrying out focused tasks such as facial recognition.

One of the biggest opportunities of AI over coming years is the driverless car revolution, according to Wooldridge, who said the technology is “right here, right now”.

“It’s just a matter of rolling it out and the big social and legal issues that go with that. Within the next five years, driverless vehicles on our motorways, I think is entirely plausible,” he predicted.

“Within 20 years I think it will be the norm. Within 50 years, our grandchildren will laugh at us for actually driving our cars.”

Wooldridge told peers that the UK is at the forefront of AI research and the government must nurture it: “As an AI researcher for 25 years I would not have guessed even a decade ago that we would absolutely be at the centre of that AI revolution.

“There’s an incredible vibrant startup culture in London. It’s extremely healthy, but it’s fragile and it needs to be nurtured. Government needs to create an environment that is friendly to those startups.”

He warned that DeepMind, the Google-owned AI firm in King’s Cross, could be courted by the UK’s European neighbours as it prepares to leave the EU.

“Believe me, Berlin and Paris would love to have DeepMind based there them and give them all sorts of breaks to have them there,” he said.

“I think clearly education plays a key role here. If you walk around the DeepMind offices, basically everybody you meet has a PhD in computer science or a mathematical subject. Many, many of them are from overseas. So we need capacity.”

But it’s not just enough, Wooldridge says, to churn out programmers: “We need programmers with a very specific set of skills.”

The select committee on AI was established over summer to assess the economic, social and ethical implications of the technology.

Its chair, Tim Clement-Jones, told NS Tech in July that he hopes to deliver concrete recommendations to government when the committee’s report is published in March next year.

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