Press Release
Cyborg Off His Christmas Tree

Simon Colton on behalf of the
SSAISB Committee

[Headline supplied by the THES, our title: "Beware the Computologers"].

It often seems like we can't win in Artificial Intelligence. On the one hand, people like Professor Roger Penrose say that computers will never be intelligent, but on the other hand, people like Professor Kevin Warwick say that robots will soon be intelligent enough to take over the world! It's important to remember that these are individual predictions of the future. Just as astrologers draw upon astronomy, what we call 'computologers' like Penrose and Warwick misuse computer science to predict our future.

While everyone is entitled to their beliefs, it has been our mistake in AI to let the opinions of computologers go largely unchallenged. Therefore, representing the largest and oldest AI society in Britain, the committee of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour (SSAISB) has decided to take a stand on this issue. We are particularly worried about the education of the nation's children through the forthcoming Royal Institute Christmas Lectures, to be presented by Kevin Warwick. With such high profile events lending credence to computology, we can no longer just stand by and keep a clear conscience.

Although Professor Warwick probably won't scare the children this Christmas by announcing that in their fifties they will be the slaves of robots, he has repeated this belief on many occasions in the press, in his books and on television and radio. People still listen because this sort of tale has always sold well, from War of the Worlds to the Terminator. It wouldn't be so bad if these stories were just there to make people think, but Professor Warwick has gone further, becoming a masterful self-publicist on fashionable but flimsy 'science'. In one stunt, a doctor placed a microchip under Warwick's skin to communicate with computers. Warwick claimed to be a cyborg, but, unless he intended to walk around naked, the same effect could have been achieved with a badge on his shirt. More seriously, this 'experiment' trivialised very important technology such as pacemakers and ear implants.

So, what can AI do when faced with stories of doom and Hollywood style destruction? How can the truth compete with such hyperbole? To defend our research from computologers such as Penrose, the AI community has done real science to reclaim words such as creativity and emotion which they claim computers will never have. In particular, the SSAISB is currently organising a conference covering emotion, creativity, consciousness and society. To discourage people like Warwick, we refrain from making predictions about the long-term future of AI. Instead, we go about our business by automating tasks which humans use intelligence to achieve including proving theorems, harmonising melodies, finding protein structures and beating chess grandmasters, to name some recent successes.

Kevin Warwick is often presented as an AI expert. However, as his opinions are so far removed from the majority view in AI, we feel that he is not a spokesman for our subject and allowing him influence through the Christmas lectures is a danger to the public perception of science. We take as our mandate the many letters of complaint received by Susan Greenfield, who organises the lectures. Professor Greenfield has received so many complaints that she sends a stock reply to most.

Because we don't agree with him, the last thing we want to do is silence Professor Warwick or people like him. Debating our technological future is very important, but it must be a reasoned debate rather than a series of tantalising stories. It's important for the public to see the other side of the coin because the predictions of computologers are simply not shared by the majority of AI researchers. Luckily, some people in the public eye share our misgivings. Jeremy Paxman recently said that Kevin Warwick was "either a visionary or a publicity-mad lunatic". While the previous Christmas lecturers have indeed included truly visionary professors, we strongly believe this is not true of Kevin Warwick.

Published in the Times Higher Education Supplement.
22nd December 2001.