What are the limits of AI?

Buxton Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 25 November, Devonshire Dome, Buxton


The hopes and fears that surround AI are so far-reaching, they are almost impossible to exaggerate. The AI-driven scenarios now discussed seriously by policymakers range from utopia, to dystopia, to the complete extermination of humanity. Tech entrepreneur Ian Hogarth, who has been appointed by the UK government to spearhead its efforts ensuring that AI is ‘safe and reliable’, has warned that ‘God-like AI could be a force beyond our control or understanding, and one that could usher in the obsolescence or destruction of the human race’.

The idea of machines emulating human thought has a long history, but AI as we know it dates back to the 1950s, when the term ‘artificial intelligence’ was first coined by American researchers to distinguish their work from approaches such as cybernetics. Since then, AI has been through various peaks and troughs, with periods of unfashionability known as ‘AI winters’ punctuating waves of hype. Recent advances – in particular, powerful approaches known as ‘foundation models’ and related tools known as ‘generative’ AI, which include AI chatbots such as ChatGPT – have attracted unprecedented attention, advocacy and investment.

New possibilities in mechanisation and automation, and related concerns about the impact on people’s jobs and livelihoods, are now seen through an AI prism. Fields of endeavour ranging from robotics to genomics to the arts are increasingly discussed in terms of how AI could transform them, or is already transforming them. Philosophies and intellectual movements that have long sought to redefine humanity, including ‘transhumanism’ and the promotion of ‘human enhancement’, are hitching their wagon to the latest developments in AI. Running alongside all of this are heated debates about how, and by whom, AI should be regulated.

Are prevailing views of today’s AI – and tomorrow’s – justified and realistic? If our machines are as powerful as claimed, where does this leave human agency? If ‘AI winter’ is truly a thing of the past, should we be making hay while the sun shines? Or should we be more sceptical?

Rob Bashforth
head of Computer Science, Salendine Nook High School Academy

Eleanor Kavanagh-Brown
user-centred designer; project assistant, Academy of Ideas

Dr Wajahat Ali Khan
associate professor of Artificial Intelligence, University of Derby

Sandy Starr
deputy director, Progress Educational Trust; author, AI: Separating Man from Machine