When Professor Stephen Hawking talks about technology, you listen. Because - and let's be honest - he knows his stuff.
Speaking at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, a £10million research institute dedicated to studying A.I., Hawking said it could be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity.”
Officially opening the centre yesterday, the much-loved physicist said that advances such as self-driving cars are a sign of how rapidly AI is developing, warning that AI could develop a will in conflict with our own.
“Success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation,” said Hawking, “But it could also be the last unless we learn how to avoid the risks. Alongside the benefits, AI will also bring dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many.”
This comes a few months after Hawking joined others in signing an open letter calling to halt the development of “autonomous weapons” – such as killer robot drones that could operate independently from humans.
He’s not done much to dispel the image drummed into us by a near-century of cautionary science fiction tales, of Terminator-induced apocalypses, machines harvesting us for battery power, or trigger-happy robo-cowboys.
But it's not all bad news. The Leverhulme Centre itself is a positive development, with brain-boxes from various schools and disciplines exploring AI and its impact on humankind. And AI might not be the harbinger of certain doom all along.
“We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity,” said Hawking. “So it’s a welcome change that people are studying instead the future of intelligence.
“The potential benefits of creating intelligence are huge. We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one – industrialisation.
“Every aspect of our lives will be transformed. In short, success in creating AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation.”
And AI isn’t the only scientific discovery that Hawking’s got his eye on. The Breakthrough Listen project – part of Berkeley’s SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Research Centre and partly funded by Hawking – is investigating strobe like bursts of light coming from 234 different stars.
Ermanno Borra and Eric Trottier, the Canadian astronomers who observed the anomaly have suggested that it could be alien civilisaztions trying to make contact – a whopper of a guess from what remains unverified data at this stage.
Breakthrough Listen will now look into the phenomena to make sense of what’s really going on up there.
The scientific community has so far been sceptical, and SETI released a statement saying, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is too early to unequivocally attribute these purported signals to the activities of extraterrestrial civilisations."
Let’s hope they’re right. The last thing we need are aliens coming hearing here with their massive lasers and advanced weaponry. We just haven’t got the AI to deal with it.