stephen hawking

Stephen Hawking warns that AI poses a danger to humanity

Image credit: dt

Physicist Stephen Hawking has said that technological advances could help to combat global poverty and environmental destruction but warned that artificial intelligence (AI) needs to be controlled or it could do severe damage to humanity.

Speaking at the Web Summit technology conference in Portugal, Hawking said artificial intelligence and robots are already threatening millions of jobs – but this new revolution could be used to help society and for the good of the world such as alleviating poverty and disease.

“The rise of AI could be the worst or the best thing that has happened for humanity,” he said. “We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance.”

Dire reports predicting massive job losses in the near future as a result of AI and automation have come thick and fast in recent months.

In February one such report said that 250,000 public sector jobs in the UK alone could be lost over the next 15 years, while 137 million Southeast Asian workers could be forced into unemployment over the next two decades.

Hawking, a British cosmologist who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease aged 21, said technology could transform every aspect of life but cautioned that artificial intelligence poses new challenges.

“Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it," he said. "Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation. Or the worst. We just don't know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

Hawking’ s comments come during an escalating debate about the pro and cons of artificial intelligence, a term used to describe machines with a computer code that learns as it goes.

Elon Musk, chief executive of electric car maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, has warned that AI is a threat to humankind’s existence (something that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg vehemently denied). 

Hawking said everyone has a role to play in making sure that this generation and the next are fully engaged with the study of science at an early level to create “a better world for the whole human race”.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be,” said Hawking, who communicates via a cheek muscle linked to a sensor and computerised voice system.

“You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted, or expected, and to think big. We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be, and you are the pioneers,” he said.

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