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Reid Hoffman at the Tech Alliance annual luncheon in Seattle today. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

What would happen if we put artificial intelligence on a path to enlightenment?

LinkedIn founder and Microsoft board member Reid Hoffman shared a number of thoughts on the future of artificial intelligence research during the annual State of Technology Luncheon Friday in Seattle, as part of a wide-ranging discussion hosted by the Tech Alliance.

Hoffman bypassed the more near-term concerns of how artificial intelligence and machine learning will be implemented in today’s technology to think about how this headlong plunge into AI research will affect society.

Hoffman and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar recently started a $27 million fund for AI research called Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence. “What does AI for the public interest mean?” Hoffman was asked by moderator Sarah Imbach, an investor and former LinkedIn executive. “I’m not sure anybody knows,” he joked.

He went on to explain that one’s level of anxiety about artificial intelligence research probably depends on how soon you think it will arrive, Hoffman said. If you think we’re 10 years away from developing computers with human-level intelligence, “you’re absolutely totally frenetic about it, probably a little crazy.” If you don’t think this will arrive for another 50 years or longer, you’re probably a little more blase about the whole thing.

But in the grand scheme of things, “do you know how short 50 to 100 years is on the human timeframe?” he said. If there’s even a 20 percent chance human-level artificial intelligence arrives by that point, we need to start thinking now about the impact it will have on society and the ethics that govern that research.

After all, computers only do what they are trained to do. “If you could train an AI to be a Buddhist, it would probably be pretty good,” Hoffman said.

Or, you could go in a different direction. Hoffman said he is particularly interested in what happens as artificial intelligence research starts to intersect with biology.

With the growing sophistication of neural networks, massive amounts of data, and nearly unlimited computing resources, it’s hard to see “an easy ceiling” for artificial intelligence research right now, he said. At the same time, biological research is taking advantage of many of the same resources to advance its own research, maybe increasing at a slower curve than AI, but increasing nonetheless.

At some point, those curves will intersect, and the growth of specialized artificial intelligence systems means “you more or less get to a point where you’re also saying that, deliberately or accidentally, you could be engineering different versions of the homo genus, like Neanderthals.”

Hopefully they’ll be Buddhists.

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