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IBM’s head of Watson likes Elon Musk but ‘hates’ A.I. scaremongering

  • David Kenny, IBM's senior vice president of Watson and Cloud, said artificial intelligence is already proving to be beneficial.
  • He suggested that doomsday warnings from the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk were overblown.
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Erik Tham | Getty Images

Warnings of artificial intelligence (AI) posing a threat to humanity are "not helpful," a top executive at IBM has said.

While critics like Tesla CEO Elon Musk have warned about the risks of developing AI, David Kenny, IBM's senior vice president of Watson and Cloud, said the technology is already proving to be beneficial.

"It's making things safer in cybersecurity, it's helping doctors and nurses and patients better find health care, it's helping people be compliant and manage their tax codes, so I see all these great benefits from it. And I hate statements that make people afraid because I think that's not helpful," Kenny said in a phone interview with CNBC.

Musk has called for regulation of AI, warning that the technology could creator a dictator and cause a third world war. Though Kenny admitted there could be potential risks if the tech is not underpinned by a set of principles, he suggested that such doomsday warnings were overblown.

"I like Elon personally and I appreciate the concern but I actually believe that if businesses and builders of the AI platform really adopt principles or trust and transparency they can get all the goodness without the risk," he said.

IBM's Watson computer gained notoriety in 2011 when it beat two champions at the quiz show "Jeopardy!" That marked one of several instances where AI had defeated a human at a game. More than two decades ago, IBM's Deep Blue triumphed over chess champion Garry Kasparov.

AI researchers have hailed the progress of sophisticated decision making and communication exhibited by machines, but notable figures in science and tech have warned that the emergence of superintelligence — computers whose intelligence surpasses that of humans — could spell the end mankind.

The late Stephen Hawking for instance warned that AI posed an existential threat to humans and could be the "worst" event in the history of civilization. The renowned British scientist said computers could both "emulate" and "exceed" human intelligence.

A.I. should always be about 'human good'

Last week, it was reported that one of Amazon's Echo devices recorded the conversation of a family and sent it on to a random person in their contacts list.

Amazon said that this was due to the word "Alexa" — which is the personal assistant's trigger to wake up — being heard by the device. The device then proceeded to send a message to a random contact based on further background conversation, according to the firm.

Kenny said random incidents like that are "why you need principles around trust and transparency."

"For us, I think having things that are automated without being able to interact with a human for override, it's just too early for that," he said.

"And I think you always want to know how did the AI make a decision and what were the things that led to it so that it can be explainable."

He added: "It's a bad idea to have randomness in an AI system. You want to make sure it's always about human good."

A number of tech firms are banking on AI and personal assistants to simplify tasks for both consumers and businesses. Microsoft for example recently bought Semantic Machines, a start-up that uses machine learning to help chatbots make conversation with humans.

IBM unveiled its own enterprise-focused virtual assistant, Watson Assistant, earlier this year. The product is a white label service, which means it lets firms build their own personal assistants using IBM's technology.