Artificial Intelligence

Cambridge Festival will focus on artificial intelligence

Pictured above: The events will explore whether AI can be taught empathy, how human biases are passed onto AI, and more. (Credit: University of Cambridge).

Some of the first events for the inaugural Cambridge Festival have been announced.

The series of free online events that can be viewed from anywhere in the world will replace the Cambridge Science Festival and the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which would usually take place in person this spring.

The theme this year will be artificial intelligence (AI) and robots. It will explore issues such as whether AI could help us reach a fairer society, whether AI should be built to care and have empathy, and how we should consider their moral and legal status.

To be held from March 26 to April 4, there will be more than 350 events in total with experts in science, current affairs, and the arts, coordinated by the University of Cambridge.

The full programme is set to be announced on February 22, but speakers and moderators include figures from the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, BBC Digital Planet, AstraZeneca, Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine, and Microsoft Research.

The festival description reads: “As the capacities of AI continue to improve, interest has grown concerning the question of whether and when artificial beings may reasonably come to possess or demand some form of moral status.”

It adds that Dr Henry Shevlin, research fellow at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and one of the upcoming speakers, suggests that “there is good reason for lawyers, politicians, philosophers, and scientists to start grappling with how we could identify suffering in beings radically different from ourselves, and considers how we should respond to the moral concerns of sentient AI as a society”.

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The description continues: “Science fiction has tended to focus on nightmarish scenarios where machines acquire superhuman abilities and wrest power from unsuspecting human beings.

“These scenarios distract attention from the real problem – which is not that humans will unwittingly cede control to runaway superintelligence, but that they are already surrendering control to machines that are too stupid to handle the tasks they are charged with.”

Over the last few years, smart speakers, virtual personal assistants and other forms of ‘conversational AIs’, such as Siri or Alexa, have become increasingly popular.

In the context of health and social care, attention has begun to focus on whether an AI system can perform caring duties or offer companionship, particularly for the lonely in care homes.

Chatbots designed to support wellbeing and perform therapeutic functions are already available and widely used, but whether machines driven by algorithms can be built to care is explored by Dr Shauna Concannon, of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, in a talk about what it means to be empathetic and the ethical implications of using AI for empathetic roles.


Dr Kerry Mackereth and Dr Eleanor Drage, Research Fellows from the Centre for Gender Studies and the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, in another talk will break down how human biases, such as misogyny or racism, can be encoded into the data that feeds AI and what the implications of this are.

They explain how and why biased AI exists; how this results in real-world harms; offer steps forward with regards to policies that the AI sector could implement to address bias in AI; and consider whether AI can help us address racist and sexist biases.

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Another talk by Dr Stefanie Ullmann of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities will explore the problems of bias and discuss possibilities for improvement.

The history of AI, dating back to the 20th and 21st century, will be explored by Dr Sarah Dillon, a broadcaster and scholar of literature, film and philosophy; Dr Richard Staley, director of studies in History and Philosophy of Science; and Jonnie Penn, a bestselling non-fiction author. The debate will discuss how AI and its many applications could radically remake concepts of knowledge.

For more information on the upcoming events, go to


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