Stephen Hawking Answers Questions About AI, Favorite Media, Greatest Mysteries On Reddit

Professor Stephen Hawking has been participating in the Ask Me Anything subreddit over the past few months, answering questions ranging from the potential impact of artificial intelligence to his favorite music.

In July, Stephen Hawking joined such noteworthy thinking luminaries as Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Noam Chomsky, among over 20,000 others, in signing an open letter aimed at raising awareness about the potential negative side effects of AI. The Inquisitr has reported on a split between Elon Musk and the scientific community, with regard to comments Musk made on how to alter Mars to suit the needs of humankind, since his signing of the letter.

Stephen Hawking’s scientific credentials, however, remain beyond reproach. Hawking is widely hailed as one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all-time, and as such, much of his work is difficult to prove with empirically gathered evidence. Though Hawking has won many awards and is held in admiration by most scientists, he has never won a Nobel Prize, reports Quora.

Still, when Stephen Hawking speaks, people listen. And while AI isn’t Hawking’s specialty, he certainly has the intellect to analyze the conclusions drawn by those who are and deliver what he feels are the most important points.

Stephen Hawking at a July 2015 press conference.

Hawking answers that if someday “machines produce everything we need,” how this will effect humanity depends on how the wealth generated by machines is split up among the population. Hawking presents two scenarios, one where everyone can live a “luxurious life” and another where people who own machines successfully stop “wealth redistribution,” keeping all of the benefits for themselves.

“So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality,” Hawking concludes.

Hawking took heat from some for this comment, with one venture capitalist stating that Hawking was making himself look “silly.” While the argument against Hawking’s thoughts holds up reasonably well when examining the past several hundred years, going back even further in history would seem to, at least partially, back up Hawking’s point of view. Technology did not save the Romans; and while humanity continued to march forward through the Dark Ages, there was an undeniable giant step backward for the Romans coinciding with a, perhaps smaller, step forward for their slaves, for close to 1,000 years. The BBC offers causes and effects of the fall of Rome.

Stephen Hawking then answered a question dealing with the drive of biological organisms to reproduce and conquer resources.

“Essentially, biological organisms are optimized to ‘take over’ as much as they can,” a biologist states, summarizing their position, “It’s basically their ‘purpose’. But I don’t think this is necessarily true of an AI.”

The biologist then asks what Hawking thinks AI might be “interested” in, and why this could be a threat to humanity.

Hawking explains that AI can be programmed to be “interested” in just about anything. The physicist then points to Steve Omohundro, who he reports suggests that advanced AI “will probably develop a drive to survive and acquire more resources” in its quest. This type of AI could compete with humanity for resources and view humans as a threat.

Hawking then fielded a question asking if AI could ever become more intelligent than humans.

Hawking answers that this is definitely possible, comparing humans to chimps and Albert Einstein to his parents.

“If this happens, we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.”

The next question Hawking addressed deals with how the media took the open letter and ran with the story about “dangerous AI” and the consequences of Terminator-like machines, which the teacher who posed the question feels is overblown.

Hawking, as he is so good at doing, makes an analogy between the building of an environmentally friendly hydroelectric dam, which almost everyone would agree has a benevolent purpose, destroying an ant colony, and no one noticing.

“Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants,” Hawking replies, “Please encourage your students to think not only about how to create AI, but also about how to ensure its beneficial use.”

Stephen Hawking with Princess Anne.

When asked about the mystery that he finds “most intriguing” Hawking responds “Women. My PA reminds me that although I have a PhD in physics women should remain a mystery.

Hawking then addressed a question regarding what stage of AI development humanity is in and if the letter he signed was referring to current developments in AI or developments that will take place at some point in the future.

“The latter. There’s no consensus among AI researchers about how long it will take to build human-level AI and beyond, so please don’t trust anyone who claims to know for sure that it will happen in your lifetime or that it won’t happen in your lifetime.”

[Feature Photo by Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images]