Voices: The killer robots are coming! So why doesn’t the British public seem to care?

If you are a certain age, the phrase “artificial intelligence” will almost certainly bring up one specific mental image: the T-1000, a regenerating robot sent back in time to 1995 by Skynet to kill the future of the human resistance, John Connor.

Just about anyone who was a teenager in the 1990s will remember with a mixture of joy and horror the central conceit of the Terminator movies – that once computers have achieved consciousness, they will come for us mere flesh and blood mortals.

It’s fair to say that since ChatGPT hit the headlines in late autumn – and I started to have a tinker with what it could and couldn’t do (and found it could do a lot) – the capabilities of Arnie and the gang have been close to the front of my mind.

Then this week came the news that the “godfather of AI”, the scientist Geoffrey Hinton, had resigned from Google so he could speak freely about how worried he was about what would happen once the AI bots were cleverer than humans.

Outlining the horrifying potential impact his discoveries could have, and the millions of jobs that would be rendered redundant, Hinton said he was now terrified by the impact of his own work.

The Turing prize winner is not alone. A few weeks ago, several of the world’s most successful tech entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, wrote a letter calling for an immediate pause on the development of AI while society attempts to get a handle on what it has invented. But they may as well have been shouting into a void for all the good it did in terms of governmental policy.

We appear to have arrived in the opening scenes of a clever sci-fi film, in which normal people go about their daily business oblivious to the horror that is about to overwhelm them.

I’m not just saying that: recent polling supports this assessment too.

A major survey carried out last month by Public First, where I am a director, found that the great British public simply does not share my terror.

When we asked people what words would best describe their feelings toward AI, the words “curious” (46 per cent) and “interested” (42 per cent) scored top. Meanwhile, just 17 per cent described themselves as “scared”. And, as it stands, currently, more people describe AI as providing an opportunity for the UK economy (33 per cent) than posing a threat (19 per cent).

It is possible, of course, that the public is just slightly behind the story, and they’ll soon catch up with the likelihood that AI is rather less “handy-internet-shopping-helper”, and rather more “terrifying-future-robot-overlord”, but I’d rather our political masters didn’t take the risk and started actually warning people of the dangers we face.

At the very least, surely we need an informed national debate about these new technological advances and how humans ought to respond?

Someone much funnier than me explained recently that he gets his kids to say “please” and “thank you” to Alexa because “once the internet bots rule the world, they’ll remember who was rude to them”. This is wisdom, for sure.

We could all do with learning from my friend, and start treating our internet servants with respect. Unlike most of the British population, we need to be aware that the rise of the robots is happening all around us – before it’s too late.