The Alan Turing Institute is delighted to have hosted the first event in this year’s Reith Lectures series (Monday 1 November 2021). This year’s Reith lecturer Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science and founder of the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of California, Berkeley, considered the question - is AI the biggest event in human history?

Russell’s lecture reflects on the AI’s history, its successes and failures, and potential risks for the future. As the national centre for data science and AI much of the Turing’s work is built on Alan Turing’s legacy, which includes his seminal paper ‘Computing Machinery and Intelligence’ – often seen as the beginning of the field of AI.

The Reith Lectures is a series of annual radio lectures given by leading figures of the day, commissioned by the BBC and broadcast on BBC Radio 4, the BBC World Service and available on BBC Sounds. This year’s lectures will be held in four locations across the UK (Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester and London) and will be broadcast on Wednesday 1 December.

Over these four lectures Russell will explore the impact of AI on our lives and discuss how we can retain power over machines more powerful than ourselves. He will discuss how it is the most profound change in human history as the world becomes increasingly reliant on super-powerful AI. Examining the impact of AI on jobs, military conflict and human behaviour, Russell will argue that our current approach to AI is wrong and that if we continue down this path, we will have less and less control over AI at the same time as it has an increasing impact on our lives. How can we ensure machines do the right thing? The lectures will suggest a way forward based on a new model for AI, one based on machines that learn about and defer to human preferences.

The lectures will be chaired by presenter, journalist and author, Anita Anand. In a complementary Radio 4 series, Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry will also explore the themes of the lectures. Find out more about the 2021 lecture series on the BBC website.

Find out more about Russell in our blog ‘Three (plus) questions with Turing Lecturer Stuart Russell’ or watch his Turing Lecture from 2020.


What is AI and should we fear it?

In the first lecture Stuart J. Russell reflects on the birth of AI, tracing our thinking about it back to Aristotle. He will outline the definition of AI, its successes and failures, and potential risks for the future. Why do we often fear the potential of AI? Referencing the representation of AI systems in film and popular culture, Russell will examine whether our fears are well founded. As previous Reith Lecturer Professor Stephen Hawking said in 2014, “Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.” Russell will ask how those risks arise and whether they can be avoided, allowing humanity and AI to coexist successfully.


From drones to robots, what should be the role of AI in military operations?

Weapons that locate, select, and engage human targets without human supervision are already available for use in warfare, so what role will AI play in the future of military conflict? Will AI reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties, or will autonomous weapons kill on a scale not seen since Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Will future wars be fought entirely by machines, or will one side surrender only when its real losses, military or civilian, become unacceptable? Stuart Russell will examine the motivation of major powers developing these types of weapons, the morality of creating algorithms that decide to kill humans, and possible ways forward for the international community as it struggles with these questions.


What is the future of work?

In lecture three, Russell explores one of the most concerning issues of AI; the threat to jobs. How will the economy adapt as work is increasingly done by machines? Economists’ forecasts range from rosy scenarios of human-AI teamwork to dystopic visions in which most people are excluded from the economy altogether. Russell will try to untangle these competing predictions and to pinpoint the comparative advantages that humans may retain over machines. Perhaps counterintuitively, he will suggest greater investment in the humanities and the arts, lead to increased status and pay for professions based on interpersonal services.


A new way to think about AI systems and human-AI coexistence

In the fourth and final lecture, Russell returns to the questions of human control over increasingly capable AI systems. He will argue for the abandonment of the current “standard model” of AI, proposing instead a new model based on three principles—chief among them the idea that machines should know that they don’t know what humans’ true objectives are. Echoes of the new model are already found in phenomena as diverse as menus, market research, and democracy. Machines designed according to the new model are, Russell suggests, deferential to humans, cautious and minimally invasive in their behaviour and, crucially, willing to be switched off. He will conclude by exploring further the consequences of success in AI for our future as a species.