Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn on surviving the rise of the machines

Robot engineer Wataru Yoshizaki demonstrates the four meter tall robot 'Kuratas' at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo on November 28, 2012. The Kuratas robot can be controlled remotely or by an operator seated in the cockpit.

Here is a big idea to chew on as you recover from the holiday revelry: A dog is said to be our best friend, but what if technology became mankind's worst enemy? Not long ago, we mentioned that Cambridge University is starting up an institute to keep an eye on things that could some day wipe out the human race. It's got a title that would do Albert Camus proud, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

We wanted to know more and have now tracked down one of the Centre's founders, an entrepreneur and engineer who helped invent one of the fixtures of the digital world as we know it, Skype, the video calling system. We reached Jaan Tallin at his home in Estonia using -- since he helped invent it -- Skype. He says he thinks about long-term problems this way:

"Humanity is seriously under-invested in them. For example, we're spending more money in lipstick research than we are in making sure that we survive this century as a species. Worrying about long-term issues is definitely something that very few people are doing. Therefore my time and my money can actually make a big difference in that area."

Tallinn's money is nothing to scoff at, either. Other than his venture capital firm, Ambient Sound Investments, we can assume Tallinn has some serious cash to invest. Skype was purchased by Microsoft in 2011 for $8.5 billion

Already, NASA is studying the remote possibility that an asteroid might hit the earth. The risks of nuclear technology running amok has been a central fear since the end of the second world war. At Cambridge the mandate is wider. What about the rise of machines, robots, that may someday make autonomous decisions? Tallin is especially worried about technology that breeds other technology, without the guiding hand of human beings.

"Once we have something that is no longer under control" says Tallinn, "once technological development is yanked out of our hands, it doesn't have to continue to be beneficial to humans." 

If this sounds an awful lot like the plot of the "Terminator" movies, the fact is that science fiction has long led in probing ethical questions before the real technology catches up. What makes all this a tough nut to crack is that ending existential risk is what's called a "public good." The Cambridge University team that Jaan Tallin funded is joined by the Oxford University Center on the Future of Humanity in this effort to try to figure out what's happening today that could hurt the ability of later generations to survive. The good news, apparently, is we have some of our best minds on the case. 

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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