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Google's Schmidt: You have nothing to fear from AI

Google's executive chairman compares fears of artificial intelligence to fears that existed when the loom came along.

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Who is more reassuring about AI? Eric Schmidt or Stephen Hawking? Computer History/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

That Stephen Hawking? Oh, he's just an old fusspot.

Elon Musk? His batteries must be running low.

That, at least, seemed to be the spirit of remarks made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt at Tuesday's Financial Times Innovate America conference.

Both Hawking and Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, have recently expressed their thoughts on artificial intelligence's future. Their views could be summed up as: "Do we know what on earth we're doing?'

Schmidt, however, said there's no darkness looming here. Indeed, he compared artificial intelligence to looming of a different era.

"Go back to the history of the loom," Schmidt said onstage at the conference, according to Wired. "There was absolute dislocation, but I think all of us are better off with more mechanized ways of getting clothes made."

We are indeed. But did anyone really think that looms would become more intelligent than humans and dispose of them for rational reasons, or just for a yarn?

Schmidt, though, focused on the economic benefits. He said: "There's lots of evidence that when computers show up, wages go up. There's lots of evidence that people who work with computers are paid more than people without."

But do everyone's wages go up? Or merely those who happen to be computer-literate?

Still, it's clear that Schmidt's company has much to gain from a benign acceptance of AI. Google's cars will rid us of the need to drive. Google's brain will rid us of the need to think too much or even wonder what we should do next.

Schmidt was at pains to relate that AI is still in its infancy. As an experiment a few years ago, Google created a neural network -- a computer system modeled on the human brain and nervous system -- and shoved 11,000 hours of YouTube videos into it to see what it could learn, Schmidt said.

The result? "It discovered the concept of 'cat.' I'm not quite sure what to say about that, except that that's where we are," he said.

That may be a commentary on YouTube, as much as it's a commentary on humanity. Clearly, though, the fears of some great minds are based not on where we're at, but where we're going.

Are we to abdicate essences of what we used to think of as humanity to machines? Are we to use our minds not to become better people, but to sit back, relax and let the robots try governing for a while?

It's tantalizing, to be sure. It's also concerning.

"These concerns are natural," countered Schmidt at the conference yesterday. "They're also misguided."

Soon, it may be time to select our guides for the trek into the future. Who is the intelligent pick?