The potential impact of rapidly improving technology on human life was a central theme at the Thinking Digital conference at Sage Gateshead yesterday.
Following a day of workshops and surgeries, 11 experts from around the globe turned out for the event which, now in its eighth year, seeks to explore the importance of tech across a wide range of areas, not just in IT.
Kicking things off was Prof Luciano Floridi from the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, an international expert on the philosophy and ethics of information.
In a speech entitled AI’s Impact on Human Life: Sci-fi v Reality, he explored the mass fascination with the idea of robots developing to such a degree they could dominate human life.
It was significant, he said, that there have long been more connected devices than people on the planet and suggested that the world has adapted to cater for this phenomenon.
It was also true that exponential growth could be observed in the field, though this was in a limited context and ultimately excessive concern over the matter “distracts society from the real problems”.
“We are here for the long run, not just for the next gadget or the next app,” he concluded.
“We have to be mindful because this is the environment we create for millions or billions of people.”
Picking up on a similar theme was Tony Hey who, originally from the UK, is now based in Seattle.
Once a particle physicist, Mr Hey went on to join Microsoft, spending a decade with the company before leaving last year as vice president of Microsoft Research.
After demonstrating the many benefits of “intelligent” technology, he went on to the discuss some disturbing downsides, such as the potential for hackers to seize complete control over ‘smart’ vehicles.
“There are some really serious things we need to think about with these applications,” he said.
Mr Hey, however, did not foresee any particular threat to human race from AI any time soon.
“It won’t happen before the next Thinking Digital conference, so we are safe,” he joked.
Illustrating more unquestionably positive impacts of smart technology, meanwhile, was Prof Andy Stanford-Clark, who works on IBM’s global Internet of Things team and is an IBM Master Inventor with more than 40 patents.
Several years ago, he told the audience, he turned his house into a “living laboratory”, monitoring energy usage down to the finest detail.
“I can also control things,” he added. “I have the smartest towel rail on the planet.”
Prof Stanford-Clark, who has a visiting professorship at Newcastle University, also described how he created a live ferry tracking system, giving each ferry its own Twitter feed that was updated in real-time for those preparing to travel.
The ferry company itself, then began to pull the feed directly to its website, leading Prof Stanford-Clark to play an April Fool’s joke, suggesting Milton Keynes as a current ferry location.
Soon, though, the company agreed to buy the tracking system and has since worked extensively with it, resourcing it with additional staff engagement.
Other speakers at yesterday’s event included Russell Davies and Abe Adewunmi, who discussed the impact of their work with the Government Digital Service, and Bob Paton, managing director of Accenture’s Newcastle Delivery Centre and interim chief executive of the North East LEP.
Thinking Digital continues today, with contributions from a further 11 speakers, including Holy Lloyd, who has spent almost 20 years with Pixar Studios, and Dr Catherine Mohr, of Intuitive Surgical, which developed the da Vinci surgical robot.