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Launching Sparks!, the serendipity forum at CERN


This week, CERN is launching Sparks!, the serendipity forum, a new two-day event aimed at stimulating creative thinking and generating new ideas relevant to CERN, and to society as a whole.

The first day brings together a group of global experts from many fields of research to share their insights into a challenge of common interest, which then feeds into a public event on day two. It is the first of three pilots that will lead to Sparks! becoming a flagship event in the programme at Science Gateway, as part of the effort to integrate the CERN spirit of innovation across all activities at our new outreach and education centre.

For this first edition of Sparks!, the focus is on artificial intelligence (AI) examined through the perspective of experts including computer scientists, neuroscientists, philosophers, ethicists and physicists. Each of these fields has a stake in AI, but it’s rare for all of them to meet. What happens when they do, we’re about to find out. The questions to explore are many and go to the heart of the challenge and the potential that AI presents for all of us. What do we need to do to ensure that AI develops into a force for good? Does AI need to mimic the human mind, or could a different approach be more powerful? Will AI systems ever become self-aware? Can they ever avoid assuming the biases of those who create them, and will they ever become cleverer than us?

Today, AI is both more mature and less mature than it appears in the public imagination. We are far from Terminator-like cyborgs, yet AI is increasingly ubiquitous in everyday life, from voice-controlled home aids to video surveillance. The potential for human advancement is vast, as Sparks! will expose, but, as with any new technology, we must ensure that it is used for the betterment of humankind and the sustainability of the planet.

Sparks! springs from CERN’s tradition of intellectual and technological innovation through collaboration across disciplines and geographical borders. One of the areas where this is perhaps most evident at CERN is in the way that tools developed for the physical sciences have been deployed in the biomedical arena. Young disciplines such as biophysics attest to the power of the kind of interdisciplinarity that Sparks! will foster.

At CERN, AI techniques are of growing importance in areas ranging from data analysis to controls and robotic maintenance. If you’d like to know more about this, there will be a webcast talk at 5.30 p.m. on Thursday, 16 September looking at how AI is employed at CERN today. The September/October issue of the CERN Courier also focuses on AI, and a series of Sparks! podcasts, available on the Sparks! website, give a fascinating glimpse into the thinking of some of the participants in this year’s event.

On Friday, 17 September, our assembled experts will discuss the issues surrounding AI, and their deliberations will be reported in a CERN Yellow Report and through an article in the journal Machine Learning Science and Technology. On Saturday, 18 September, you will have the opportunity to get a preview of what those publications will say at the Sparks! public event, which will be webcast live from the Globe – see sparks.cern for details.

I hope that many of you will join us to take a privileged look at what the future holds for intelligence.