Berwins Salon North: AI author Nigel Toon on the challenges and benefits of Artificial Intelligence ahead of Harrogate date

Tech entrepreneur Nigel Toon is among the speakers at Berwins Salon North in Harrogate this month. He talks to Chris Bond about the challenges and benefits of AI.

IT was a chance conversation with a member of the Royal family that gave Nigel Toon the idea to write a book about Artificial Intelligence (AI). “I was at an event at Windsor Castle and I was speaking to one of the members of our Royal family and they mentioned some of their concerns and I thought ‘I really must sit down and write a book about this.’” So he did.

How AI Thinks, published earlier this month, is an accessible guide that demystifies AI and explores the impact this pioneering technology is already having on our lives and the challenges and opportunities it is likely to present in the future.

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Toon is an entrepreneur, technology business leader, and CEO and co-founder of British-based semiconductor firm Graphcore. He is among the guest speakers at the Berwins Salon North this month, as the TED-style talks make a welcome return with a new season.

Nigel Toon.Nigel Toon.
Nigel Toon.

He will be joined by Dr Peter Olusoga, Chartered Psychologist and host of the award-winning podcast, Eighty Percent Mental, and classics professor, writer and broadcaster Edith Hall, as they explore some of the latest big ideas in art, science and psychology.

Toon has spent the last 30 years working in the semiconductor industry that has helped drive the AI technology revolutionising our world and will share his insights on this hot topic when he takes to the stage in Harrogate.

If you mention “AI” to people they quite often fall into two very distinct camps – they either think it’s going to transform our lives, or it’s going to kill us all.

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As an AI expert it’s something Toon hears all the time. “Lots of people have said to me ‘I don’t understand AI, I’m scared of it and what’s it all about?’” he says. “I explain that yes, this is an incredibly powerful tool, perhaps the most powerful we’ve yet created, but we can control it and like any powerful tool it’s actually the humans we need to worry about rather than the machine itself.”

The audience enjoying a previous Salon North event.The audience enjoying a previous Salon North event.
The audience enjoying a previous Salon North event.

As he points out, AI already plays an integral part in our everyday lives. “When you use a credit card or make a purchase online, AI is very much part of the process trying to keep you and your money safe and check that it’s actually you that’s making the payment.

“You might not have an autonomous car but in it you’ll have various driving assistance programmes that tell you when you’re moving out of a lane, or getting too close to a car in front. Those are all AI-driven.”

Though AI technology has developed dramatically over the past decade or so, Toon makes a computer game analogy likening it to Pac Man, the hugely popular 1980s computer game, in terms of where it is right now. “It’s 2D, it’s colour, it’s pretty good, but it’s nowhere near the 3D, immersive games we have today, and that’s where AI is going to go. We’re still in the foothills in terms of what’s going to be possible.”

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Which is why many people are nervous about what the future holds and they aren’t alone.

A Government report published last October warned that artificial intelligence could increase the risk of cyber-attacks and quickly erode trust in online content. This followed a report by investment bank Goldman Sachs which estimated that AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million full-time jobs. However, the report also said this technology may lead to new jobs and a boom in productivity, calling Generative AI, algorithms (like ChatGPT) that can be used to create new content, “a major advancement.”

Toon says concerns around jobs aren’t without foundation. “There are lots of reports that say most jobs won’t be fully automated away, but parts of the jobs could be automated. What that will mean is it will change what people do, and in some cases that means the dull drudgery will be replaced and the job will become more interesting – or it might reduce the value of that job.”

All this has undoubtedly focused minds and Toon was among 100 world leaders, AI experts and tech industry bosses, including the likes of Elon Musk and Rishi Sunak, who attended the AI Safety Summit at Bletchley Park last autumn. He believes effective regulation is key to addressing people’s concerns. “Having the right types of regulations is going to be very important because this is a very powerful technology. Will it run out of control? I would argue no, unless some bad actor decides that’s what they’re going to try and make it do.”

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Another crucial question is whether control of this technology is in the hands of the few or the many. “There’s a debate around does it need to be controlled by a small number of companies, or should it be open source so anybody can use it?” He’s very much in favour of the latter. “It needs to be available to everyone. The idea that you’d give this power to a small number of people would cause terrible problems for countries like the UK, because it would be in the hands of some big US tech company and we would become beholden to them.”

Toon believes AI technology is likely to have as profound an effect on our lives as the advent of electricity did in the late 19th century. And, as with most technologies, he believes it will have its greatest impact when it becomes an accepted part of our daily lives, like mobile phones.

“AI in 25, or 30, years will become invisible. It will be a tool, like a piece of paper and a pencil, that we’ll use to augment our intelligence and solve problems that we can’t currently solve,” he says. “We’ll still get up and drink our cup of coffee. We’ll just work in a slightly different and maybe more productive way.”

Berwins Salon North, The Crown Hotel, Harrogate, February 22, 7.30pm. Tickets: £18 plus booking fee. Tickets are available from the Harrogate International Festivals website or by calling the Box Office on 01423 562 303.

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