Press Office

Reith Lecture

Newcastle to host a BBC R4 Reith Lecture on Artificial Intelligence

Published on: 14 October 2021

Artificial Intelligence and Human Existence: Stuart Russell is the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lecturer for 2021, and Newcastle University is hosting one of the high-profile lectures.

Professor Russell will explore the future of AI and ask; how can we get it right?

Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science and founder of the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley will be the 2021 BBC Reith Lecturer. Russell will deliver four lectures this autumn, which will explore the impact of AI on our lives and discuss how we can retain power over machines more powerful than ourselves.

The lectures will examine what Russell will argue is the most profound change in human history as the world becomes increasingly reliant on super-powerful AI. Examining the impact of AI on jobs, military conflict and human behaviour, Russell will argue that our current approach to AI is wrong and that if we continue down this path, we will have less and less control over AI at the same time as it has an increasing impact on our lives. How can we ensure machines do the right thing? The lectures will suggest a way forward based on a new model for AI, one based on machines that learn about and defer to human preferences.

The series of lectures will be held in four locations across the UK, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Manchester and London and will be broadcast on Radio 4 and the World Service as well as available on BBC Sounds. Accompanying the lectures, Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry will explore the themes of the lectures in a complementary Radio 4 series.

Stuart Russell says: “It's a great honour to be invited to give the Reith Lectures. The topic of artificial intelligence is ubiquitous in the media, yet the opportunities for in-depth explanation are few. I look forward to opening a conversation concerning questions about our future with AI—questions in which every human being has a stake.”

Mohit Bakaya, Controller of Radio 4, says: “Artificial Intelligence sits alongside climate change as one of the great challenges we humans need to get to grips with right now. However, AI presents us with extraordinary possibilities as well as existential threat. How we understand, explore and shape the development of this technology over the next few years will be crucial. Therefore, I’m delighted that Stuart Russell - one of the world’s leading experts in the field - has agreed to deliver the 2021 Reith Lectures mapping out the territory and identifying the main issues that face us. Can we foster a healthy relationship with AI or will we develop a technology that will ultimately overwhelm us?”

The lectures will be chaired by presenter, journalist and author, Anita Anand.

Audiences can apply for free tickets to each of the recordings from Wednesday 18 September, via the BBC website:


What is AI and should we fear it?

In the first lecture Stuart J. Russell reflects on the birth of AI, tracing our thinking about it back to Aristotle. He will outline the definition of AI, its successes and failures, and potential risks for the future. Why do we often fear the potential of AI? Referencing the representation of AI systems in film and popular culture, Russell will examine whether our fears are well founded. As previous Reith Lecturer Professor Stephen Hawking said in 2014, “Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.” Russell will ask how those risks arise and whether they can be avoided, allowing humanity and AI to coexist successfully.


From drones to robots, what should be the role of AI in military operations?

Weapons that locate, select, and engage human targets without human supervision are already available for use in warfare, so what role will AI play in the future of military conflict? Will AI reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties, or will autonomous weapons kill on a scale not seen since Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Will future wars be fought entirely by machines, or will one side surrender only when its real losses, military or civilian, become unacceptable? Stuart Russell will examine the motivation of major powers developing these types of weapons, the morality of creating algorithms that decide to kill humans, and possible ways forward for the international community as it struggles with these questions.


What is the future of work?

In lecture three, Russell explores one of the most concerning issues of AI; the threat to jobs. How will the economy adapt as work is increasingly done by machines? Economists’ forecasts range from rosy scenarios of human-AI teamwork to dystopic visions in which most people are excluded from the economy altogether. Russell will try to untangle these competing predictions and to pinpoint the comparative advantages that humans may retain over machines. Perhaps counterintuitively, he will suggest greater investment in the humanities and the arts, lead to increased status and pay for professions based on interpersonal services.


A new way to think about AI systems and human-AI coexistence

Wednesday, 10 November 2021, 7pm - 9pm
National Innovation Centre for Data, The Catalyst 3, Science Square, Newcastle Helix, Newcastle, NE4 5TG

Get tickets

In the fourth and final lecture, Russell returns to the questions of human control over increasingly capable AI systems. He will argue for the abandonment of the current “standard model” of AI, proposing instead a new model based on three principles—chief among them the idea that machines should know that they don’t know what humans’ true objectives are. Echoes of the new model are already found in phenomena as diverse as menus, market research, and democracy. Machines designed according to the new model are, Russell suggests,  deferential to humans, cautious and minimally invasive in their behaviour and, crucially, willing to be switched off. He will conclude by exploring further the consequences of success in AI for our future as a species.

About Stuart Russell

Stuart Russell is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley, holder of the Smith-Zadeh Chair in Engineering, and Director of the Center for Human-Compatible AI. He is a recipient of the IJCAI Computers and Thought Award and held the Chaire Blaise Pascal in Paris. In 2021 he received the OBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. He is an Honorary Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, and a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book "Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach" (with Peter Norvig) is the standard text in AI, used in 1500 universities in 135 countries. His research covers a wide range of topics in artificial intelligence, with a current emphasis on the long-term future of artificial intelligence and its relation to humanity. He has developed a new global seismic monitoring system for the nuclear-test-ban treaty and is currently working to ban lethal autonomous weapons.


About The Reith Lectures

The Reith Lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Sir John (later Lord) Reith, the corporation's first director-general.

John Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation. It is in this spirit that the BBC each year invites a leading figure to deliver a series of lectures on radio. The aim is to advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest.

The very first Reith lecturer was the philosopher, Bertrand Russell who spoke on 'Authority and the Individual'. Among his successors were Robert Oppenheimer (Science and the Common Understanding, 1953) and J.K. Galbraith (The New Industrial State, 1966). The Reith Lectures have also been delivered by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks (The Persistence of Faith, 1990), Onora O’Neill (A Question of Trust, 2002), Daniel Barenboim (In The Beginning Was Sound, 2006) and Michael Sandel (A New Citizenship, 2009). Most recently the Reith Lecturers have been Stephen Hawking (Black Holes, 2016), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Mistaken Identities, 2016), Hilary Mantel (Resurrection: The Art And Craft, 2017), Margaret MacMillan (The Mark of Cain, 2018), Jonathan Sumption (Law and the Decline of Politics, 2019) and Mark Carney (How We Get What We Value 2020).

The Reith Archive is available here:

Press release with thanks from BBC Radio 4.

Professor Stuart Russell. Image: Bengt Oberger, Wikimedia commons,

Latest News