Geoffrey Hinton delivering the 2024 Romanes Lecture, Feb 19


Extinction is back on the agenda in all sorts of troubling ways, reports Richard Lofthouse

Published: 21 February 2024

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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British Canadian Artificial Intelligence luminary Geoffrey Hinton ended Oxford’s 2024 Romanes Lecture, ‘Will Digital Intelligence Replace Biological Intelligence?’ with some dire predictions.

Fakery in voices and videos will wreak havoc in the public square, whether powered by loosely regulated social media platforms or inserted deliberately and malignly by enemy states.

Job losses will likely be huge, with the caveat that we don’t know precisely how large. This may power angry populism and the tendency towards fascism to new heights.

Massive surveillance of the sort China has already implemented will become normal in many countries.

Lethal autonomous weapons will divorce human actors from the decision making that leads to killing other human beings, as well as being terrifying.

Cyber-crime and deliberate pandemics will both advance. Discrimination and bias will be a huge problem but there is scope for addressing them, up to a point.

More than all the above, Hinton argues that there is a true existential threat to human beings from super-intelligences that may take over, particularly if they manipulate their human subjects to acquire more power and also in the event that they go up against each other in a destruction of natural resource.

He said, ‘This possibility is not science fiction.’

And nor is it far off – a view he has changed materially in just the past year, having started 2023 believing that such a threat lay several decades away. He does not now see it as being so far away.

The extraordinary thing about the lecture, which was delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre on February 19 in a forty minutes from 5.30pm, was that it was prefaced by an entirely unrelated lecture on the same subject but differently, the Bodleian Race Lecture right across the road in the Weston Library’s The Sir Victor Blank Lecture Theatre, delivered just an hour earlier at 4.00pm by Professor Sadiah Qureshi, University of Manchester.

Professor Qureshi’s lecture was called ‘Tracing the Legacies of Empires of Extinction’, and while the theme, colonialism, was different, the underlying ideas around ‘extinction’ and ‘extermination’ intersected with the Romanes lecture.

In neither lecture was genocide discussed in respect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the Hamas attack on Israel, and Israel’s response.

But current affairs offered both audiences an immediate way in which to see how contested and commonplace ideas of genocide and extinction have become.

Professor Qureshi emphasised that within the UN definition of genocide, intent is emphasised over accomplishment. A population may survive an assault on their existence, and still have been the victims of genocide.

The definition contained in Article II of the UN Convention describes genocide as ‘a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part’.

Professor Qureshi argued that the idea of extinction is fairly commonplace – who hasn’t heard of the Dodo, including children? But in the 18th Century the extinction of the Dodo and equivalent examples were understood as acts of humans against nature.

What happened later that century, around the time of the French Revolution, was a discovery of the fossil record that suggested catastrophic extinction through geological and climactic events in the distant past, millions of years earlier.

What that discovery did was make extinction a natural phenomenon, and coinciding as it did with colonialism allowed the ‘disappearance’ of various indigenous peoples from North America to Australia, upon the arrival of European settlers, to be considered ‘natural.’

There was a flurry of effort by Europeans to acquire items marking the ‘last’ members of a tribe or group, and post cards and paintings of exotic individuals were circulated, with no particular care for their existence as human beings.

Such was the cultural confidence of the colonial powers, that no attempt was made to cover up their direct role in killing or persecuting such peoples.

In fact the 19th Century saw a progressive erosion of the distinction between the ‘extermination’ and ‘extinction’.

Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man (1871) that ‘Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race,’ the idea was commonplace’.

It was from this broader context that theories of racial competition became common, and from which the ideas resulting in the Holocaust gained traction.

Professor Qureshi then moved to considering the development of the term ‘Genocide’ in the aftermath of World War Two, within the UN and in particular by Dr Raphael Lemkin.  

The lecture then turned to climate change as an existential threat to humans, and the UN campaign around the hashtag ‘Don’t choose extinction.’

An hour later, Professor Hinton finished his lecture by arguing that climate change was far easier to solve than Artificial Intelligence.

He acknowledged that getting humans to agree that it was manmade had been far harder than anticipated, but added that nonetheless, the solution was simple: stop burning fossil fuels.  

Artificial intelligence, he noted, was already at the point where GPT4 was thousands of times more knowledgeable than a human being, in effect answering the question posed by his lecture title with a ‘yes’ – that digital intelligence may replace biological intelligence.

The advice he offered was to hugely increase the number of researchers looking to channel and guide the breakneck pace of AI development.

But his final warning was more emphatic still – ‘no one will turn it off.’

The 2024 Romanes lecture delivered by Geoffrey Hinton on Feb 19 2024, can be viewed in full HERE.

Geoffrey Hinton was one of the researchers who introduced the backpropagation algorithm and the first to use backpropagation for learning word embeddings. His other contributions to neural network research include Boltzmann machines, distributed representations, time-delay neural nets, mixtures of experts, variational learning and deep learning. His research group in Toronto made major breakthroughs in deep learning that revolutionized speech recognition and object classification.

Geoffrey Hinton is a fellow of the UK Royal Society and a foreign member of the US National Academy of Engineering, the US National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His awards include the David E. Rumelhart prize, the IJCAI award for research excellence, the Killam prize for Engineering, the IEEE Frank Rosenblatt medal, the NSERC Herzberg Gold Medal, the IEEE James Clerk Maxwell Gold medal, the NEC C&C award, the BBVA award, the Honda Prize the Princess of Asturias Award and the Turing Award.

Professor Sadiah Qureshi (University of Manchester) Tracing the Legacies of Empires of Extinction (Joint seminar with the Bodleian Libraries, We Are Our History Conversations)

Professor Sadiah Qureshi is an historian of racism, science and empire. She has recently joined the University of Manchester as Chair in Modern British History. Her first book, Peoples on Parade (2011), explored the importance of displayed peoples for the emergence of anthropology. She is currently writing her next book, provisionally entitled Vanished: Episodes in the History of Extinction, for Allen Lane, supported by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. In 2023, she was a Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Library.