cambridge university
A new research centre to study the opportunities and challenges the rise of human-level intelligence among machines might present in the near future has been established at the U.K.’s Cambridge University. Pictured: Rain drops break the surface of a puddle at the rear of Kings' College in Cambridge, southern England, January 8, 2004. Reuters

In recent years, the likes of Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have expressed serious concerns over the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI), with some going so far as to term it humanity’s “biggest existential threat.” Now, in order to explore the opportunities and challenges that the rise of human-level intelligence among machines might present in the near future, a new research center has been established at Cambridge University in the U.K.

The announcement was made Thursday by the London-based Leverhulme Trust -- a nonprofit foundation that awards grants for academic research. The trust provided a grant of 10 million pounds ($15 million) to the university for the creation of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, which will “explore the opportunities and challenges of this potentially epoch-making technological development,” the university said, in a statement released Thursday.

“Machine intelligence will be one of the defining themes of our century, and the challenges of ensuring that we make good use of its opportunities are ones we all face together,” Huw Price, the Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy at Cambridge and director of the center, said, in the statement. “At present, however, we have barely begun to consider its ramifications, good or bad.”

The new center will work in collaboration with the university’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which analyses emerging risks to humanity’s future, such as climate change, biological warfare and AI.

In recent months, research into the potential impact of an artificially intelligent machine on human society has witnessed a marked uptick, with Cambridge itself being a hotbed for AI research. Earlier this year, Google announced that it had developed an AI program that was capable of teaching itself to play and win video games -- a significant advancement in the field of “deep learning,” which aims to create machines capable of mastering a diverse array of challenging tasks.

And, while scientists like Hawking have been less than enthusiastic about the prospects that thinking machines might one day walk among us, many others are decidedly less gloomy.

“The field of machine learning continues to advance at a tremendous pace, and machines can now achieve near-human abilities at many cognitive tasks -- from recognizing images to translating between languages and driving cars,” Zoubin Ghahramani, a professor of information engineering and a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, said, in the statement. “We need to understand where this is all leading, and ensure that research in machine intelligence continues to benefit humanity.”