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Microsoft president warns AI could be 'formidable weapon'

Oscar Williams-Grut
·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Microsofts President Brad Smith delivers a speech during the annual Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal on November 6, 2019. (Photo by Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Microsofts president Brad Smith delivers a speech during the annual Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty

The president of Microsoft (MSFT) has warned artificial intelligence (AI) could become a “formidable weapon” unless tech companies build in limits to prevent its “abuse”.

“Any tool can also become a weapon,” Brad Smith said on Wednesday. “The more powerful the tool, the more formidable the weapon.

“When we look to the decade ahead, in many respects AI will be a tool of the sort the world has seldom seen before. And hence it can become a weapon as well.”

Smith made the comments during a speech at the Web Summit, one of the world’s biggest technology conferences. He called on the audience of tech professionals in Lisbon to “think hard” about the potential problems that could be caused by AI.

“We shouldn’t just ask what computers can do, we need to ask what they should do,” Smith said. “We are the first generation in the history of humanity … who will empower machines to make decisions that previously were made only by people.

“If we get it wrong, every generation that comes after us will pay a price.”

Smith played a clip from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where Hal, the AI bot that controls the spaceship, refuses to open a door to let the crew return. Hal’s logical deduction is inefficient human’s will jeopardise the overall mission.

‘Unintended consequences’

A still from Paramount's Terminator: Dark Fate.
A still from Terminator: Dark Fate. Image: Paramount Pictures

“Machines make decisions for themselves, machines stop listening to humans, machines start enslaving humans or even killing them — that’s basically every Terminator movie you’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “That is what the public has grown up thinking about AI.”

While this end state seems unlikely, Smith said it “raises a very important question” about how to control the technology.

He called for “guard rails on the technology we are creating to protect against their abuse or their misuse or their unintended consequences.”

He also called for greater engagement with governments around the world and called on lawmakers to “move faster” to keep up with the pace of change.

“We will always serve ourselves best if we put the public first,” Smith said. “We need to think broadly about what it means to serve the public.”

While the speech emphasised the potential pitfalls of AI, Smith said the tech could be an “extraordinary asset for the world” if managed correctly. He said Microsoft was already using AI for things like environmental work, humanitarian relief, accessibility, and the cultural heritage preservation.