High-technology: At its two extremes, it has the potential to empower society to thrive like never before, or completely self-destruct. The question of where technology is taking us is the core conversation at the Future of Life Institute, a Cambridge nonprofit with ties to MIT that launched last May. Its objective: To research the issues and launch initiatives related to the challenges technology presents, and to ultimately develop a more optimistic vision for how humanity can take control of the future.

Elon Musk at MIT (Photo by Sarah Fisher for BostInno)

One of the flash points in the debate over technology and the future is artificial intelligence. In October, for instance, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared his concerns about artificial intelligence in a talk at MIT, saying that AI is likely “our biggest existential threat” and comparing it to “summoning the demon.”

“In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like, he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out,” Musk said at the MIT talk.

Now, Musk is serving on the scientific advisory board at the Future of Life Institute and has also donated $10 million to the organization, for a global research program aimed at keeping AI beneficial for humanity.

“Hopefully this grant program will help shift our focus from building things just because we can, toward building things because they are good for us in the long term,” said institute co-founder Meia Chita-Tegmark on the group’s website.

Here’s what you need to know about how the Future of Life Institute operates and what the mission is.

The institute is run entirely by volunteers

The volunteers are a mix of local scientists and researchers, as well as some who don’t have a scientific or research background. The goal is to have a diversity of skills and ideas, but what they have in common is that they’re not looking to get any benefit other than the chance to explore the issues surrounding high-tech. When members meet, it’s often for brainstorming sessions and to discuss active and potential projects. However, they also hold more narrowly focused meetings where smaller groups work on specific initiatives. Projects in the pipeline can range from improving relevant Wikipedia pages to ways to make the topic of AI safety more mainstream.

Its board includes both Boston researchers and Hollywood celebs

There are a number of Boston-area experts involved in the Future of Life Institute. The organization was founded by MIT physics professor Max Tegmark, along with UC Santa Cruz professor Anthony Aguirre. The pair also founded the Foundational Questions Institute, a research organization that explores the foundations of physics and cosmology.

Two legendary actors serve on the advisory board: Morgan Freeman and Alan Alda.

Other key people with the Future of Life Institute include Jaan Tallinn, a founding engineer of Skype and Kazaa who helped to launch the Cambridge Center for Existential Risk; Boston University PhD candidate Meia Chita-Tegmark; and Harvard University PhD candidate Viktoriya Krakovna.

Oh, and two legendary actors serve on the advisory board: Morgan Freeman and Alan Alda.

Anyone can apply for AI research funding from the group

The research supported by the program will be carried out around the world via an open grants competition. An application portal on the website is expected to open by Jan. 19. The plan is to award the majority of the grant funds to AI researchers, with the rest going to AI-related research involving other fields, such as economics, law, ethics and policy.

“Anybody can send in a grant proposal, and the best ideas will win regardless of whether they come from academia, industry or elsewhere,” said co-founder Viktoriya Krakovna.

Image of robots via Shutterstock.