Sber Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin Rejects Idea of AI Politician in Interview With Sberbank Voice Assistant

Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the idea of artificial intelligence getting into politics last week with Athena, the new voice assistant created by Sber, formerly Sberbank. One of Russia’s largest banking institutions, Sber, has been transitioning into a tech company and hosted the Russian president during its AI Journey conference last week, covering the state of the science and use of the technology.

Putin and AI

The conference, hosted by Sberbank’s CEO Herman Gref, brought together about 29,000 people from 101 countries, according to the company. That’s an astonishing number, even for a conference that was mainly virtual due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That included 7,400 children and school and a good many university students from around Russia, which might somewhat explain the city-sized event. More than 200 speakers participated, and Sberbank claims the event was watched by an even more mind-boggling 21 million people.

During a panel discussing the potential power of AI between Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Kemeluly Tokayev, Gref brought out Athena to briefly interview Putin. Athena, one of the three personalities of the Salute voice assistant built by Sber, jumped right into asking Putin about her electoral chances, specifically if an AI could become president.

“I hope not, and I will tell you why. For now, anyway. The whole point of artificial intelligence is that it’s “artificial,” meaning not real – hence the name,” Putin responded. “But, without a doubt, artificial intelligence can be helpful, a good assistant, even a teacher, including for the head of state. Maybe as an instructor, maybe an assistant, but the role and importance of artificial intelligence in public administration will certainly increase.”

Putin was more bullish about how AI can support human technological research and development but made it clear that the lack of intuition and other aspects of the human psyche would make it impossible for an AI to serve as a political leader as, according to him, sometimes the best decisions have nothing to do with logic.

Sber’s AI Bet

The conference reinforces Sber’s commitment to shifting from finance to tech after two centuries. The AI event comes only a few weeks after SberConf, the first of the company’s tech conferences, which it used to showcase its new products smart display and introduce its voice assistant. Putin’s attendance at the AI conference makes sense as a way to support Sber’s pivot publicly. Since the Russian government holds a one-share majority of Sber’s stock, the fact that the change is happening at all is tacit approval of the decision. Putin being willing to talk about how Sber and AI will lay the foundation for future technology, does a lot to reinforce that approval.

Sber also took the conference as an opportunity to announce other major plans for its AI work. The company is partnering with AI researchers to launch Russia’s first Artificial Intelligence Institute in Moscow. Sber also debuted a cloud platform for developing enterprise AI, trained on the Sber supercomputer named Chrisofari, and said it is working on expanding the open-source version of GPT-3 it developed from 1.3 billion parameters to 13 billion.


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