An inside look at an Artificial Intelligence conference in Cambridge

An inside look at an Artificial Intelligence conference in Cambridge

This summer, about 150 people came together in Cambridge to talk about robots, machines and the artificially intelligent future. One of the attendees of the two-day conference was Tilburg University student Niklas Limacher. He didn’t get much sleep, but sitting next to “celebrities” like Stuart Russell and Murray Shanahan sure made up for it. Sharing his impressions, Niklas gives us an inside look at the mind-bending world of Artificial Intelligence.

“I was born in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley, and have always had an interest in the relationship between humans and technology. In particular, I believe that exponential technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence & Virtual Reality, will have a profound influence on our society and our day-to-day lives. This semester, I started the Bachelor’s track in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science at Tilburg University. Tilburg University’s motto “Understanding Society” and the many high-end facilities make for an ideal environment to learn all about the exciting future ahead.

“I researched what the conference was about, bought a ticket and immediately organized my trip to Cambridge”

During the past couple of months I’ve been reading many different books and watched dozens of talks about and related to AI. It’s tough to stay up to date in the field because of the rapid and regular breakthroughs being made, and I’m often overwhelmed with the amount of newsletters I receive and the notifications I get on Twitter. However, within this abundance of information, I was lucky to come across a tweet by Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford about an AI conference in Cambridge. I researched what the conference was about, bought a ticket and immediately organized my trip to Cambridge.

The conference was organized by the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, a community of researchers aiming to make sure that AI develops to the advantage of mankind. Their team consists of many big names in the AI field such as Stuart Russell, a prominent professor at UC Berkeley, Nick Bostrom, the founder of the Future of Humanity Institute and author of “Superintelligence,” and Murray Shanahan, from Google’s DeepMind and the scientific advisor for the movie “Ex-Machina”.


The first day of the conference was mainly about distinguishing AI hype from facts. We also discussed how many AI experts are inspired by science fiction and what an impact science fiction authors have on the field. I came to understand the huge potential of science fiction, a genre of literature I’ve never really been exposed to, as it gives us an opportunity to discuss philosophical topics and imagine all kinds of different future scenarios. For example, Isaac Asimov’s famous “Laws of Robotics” have had a tremendous impact on the development of safe AI.

The second day was mainly about how we begin to trust machines and algorithms that are continuously being applied in the fields of finance and law. We need to find a way to simply explain the complex decisions made by an algorithm to the general public with no background in computer science. I enjoyed the second day more, as it emphasized the importance of cybersecurity. The more our devices are interconnected, the more vulnerable they’ll be to hackers, which poses an enormous threat. Francesca Rossi from IBM talked about how AI systems need value alignment and transparency. For instance, the fact that there is no set of universal values means there’ll need to be different values implemented into an AI system in different regions around the world. She believes that tasks will mainly be automated instead of entire jobs vanishing, and that the future of work will be a cooperation between humans and machines.

“Being one of the youngest people at the conference, I was often overwhelmed when meeting professors, PhDs and other experts”

The size of the event was much smaller than I expected, with only about 150 attendees, which turned out to be an advantage as it gave me the opportunity to chat with most people of interest to me. I was by far one of the youngest people at the conference and was often overwhelmed when meeting professors, PhDs, business professionals and other experts. Still, I profited a lot when listening to (and sometimes even participating in) their highly intellectual discussions. What surprised me in the beginning was the fact that these smart and talented individuals don’t perceive themselves as famous at all and are extremely down to earth. I ate lunch with Stuart Russell, took a selfie with Murray Shanahan and had drinks with Anders Sandberg. I loved skipping small talk and getting right down to what was on our mind, whether it was artificial superintelligence, brain-machine interfaces, AI media hype, transhumanism or even global catastrophic risks and why we need to move to Mars. It was a large group of like-minded people who simply loved to share their knowledge and learn from other experts.

Networking with a large group of business professionals at this gathering who are working in all sorts of different industries and to see how and to what extent they use AI within their companies, shed light on how early AI technologies are being adopted in the business world. In contrast, talking with researchers gave me different insights into what the hottest topics currently are in AI and where they believe the technology is headed. What caught my attention was that practically everyone had the ability to program or at least understand code in order to have discussions with engineers, which motivated me more than ever to continue practicing and improving my programming skills as it is an essential skill to learn nowadays.

“I ate lunch with Stuart Russell, took a selfie with Murray Shanahan and had drinks with Anders Sandberg”

I believe that machine learning still has tremendous potential that has not been exploited yet. I’m looking forward to meeting other like-minded students at Tilburg University to brainstorm and discuss these fascinating topics. Accenture, one of the conference’s two main sponsors next to PWC, had their own booth set up with a virtual reality game. The combination of AI & VR will lead to interesting ideas, and I cannot wait to start working on projects in the Virtual Reality Lab. The next big AI conference I’m visiting will be the World AI Summit in Amsterdam, and I’m sure that many of my fellow students will join me there, as it is one of the biggest AI conferences in the world and we’re lucky enough to study so close to Amsterdam! Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about either conference or simply want to talk about AI.”


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