Google's director of product management in the Android team, Andrew Toy, has compared AI and machine learning to nuclear fission – and insisted that Google is the right company to be tasked with the enormous ethical questions that underpin these emerging technologies.

Speaking with Techworld following a roundtable at the SOTI Sync event in London, Toy insisted that Google is very aware of the ethical and moral questions surrounding transformative new technologies like AI.

nuclear bomb wiki commons
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

"It's really important to Google we do this the right way – everything we do is very considered," he said. "For individuals, we take privacy super seriously, so we can do all this for you, but you need to share information with us. But we're always thinking about these things.

"It's brand new stuff, so there's not a lot of things you can find out from old ethics books from the 1800s," he continued. "We have got to be very thoughtful is how I would put it, as we advance. Most technology companies are thinking about that the same way. We've all seen Terminator, so that's not what we're trying to do."

But is it right for this immense responsibility to fall in the lap of companies like Google? Toy suggested that the company is taking the burden seriously.

"It's important not only to have the right technology, but it's important to have the right goals for the technology," he said. "The thing about machine learning is you don't tell it how to solve the problem, you tell it what you want and it figures out how to solve the problem. So you have to make sure you're picking the right goals or otherwise it can go awry.

"Humanity is all about these really powerful tools, and they are tools. If you do the wrong thing with it... It's like nuclear fission. You can use nuclear fission for a bomb, or you can use nuclear fission for a reactor, for electricity. It's the same exact physics underneath it but if you let it go out of control, the nuclear reactor can become a bomb, so even if you built the reactor in the beginning it might go that way.

"So you always have to be looking at it, but you don't blame the physics. It's our job as engineers to build the right tool at the end of the day."

Speaking at the SOTI Sync event, Toy told the audience that the power of the cloud has been transformative in society, and from Google's perspective, the company sees a lot of potential in healthcare and smart cities. Since Google is strong in machine learning, cloud, and devices, Toy said, the company is also well positioned to act as a bridge across all three.

And according to Toy, off-the-shelf devices running Android could even be used for ambitious city-wide projects or the founding of a business.

"Before, only Fedex could have all the delivery tools – but now if you want to start your own flower shop, for example, you could have all the same tools that Fedex had," he said. "The interesting thing about the smart city is you don't even need dedicated sensors."

Using the example of a smart port, Toy said a city could in the near future buy in commodity Android devices, wire them up, connect their cameras, place them as fixtures on a wall, and then use Google's imaging and visual data processing to analyse data without the billions currently spent on smart infrastructure projects.

"With our visual data processing you'll be able to analyse when the ships come in and when the containers come in without dedicated sensors," he said. "So in that way you don't have to spend as much to create these dedicated platforms. You could use commodity platforms."