Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent
scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines
pose a threat to our very existence.
He told the BBC:”The development of full artificial
intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
His warning came in response to a question about a revamp
of the technology he uses to communicate, which involves a
basic form of AI.
But others are less gloomy about AI’s prospects.
The theoretical physicist, who has the motor neurone
disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is using a new
system developed by Intel to speak.
Machine learning experts from the British company Swiftkey
were also involved in its creation. Their technology, already
employed as a smartphone keyboard app, learns how the
professor thinks and suggests the words he might want to
Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial
intelligence developed so far have already proved very
useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something
that can match or surpass humans.
“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever
increasing rate,” he said.
“Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution,
couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
But others are less pessimistic.
“I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a
decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of
the world problems will be realised,” said Rollo Carpenter,
creator of Cleverbot.
Cleverbot’s software learns from its past conversations, and
has gained high scores in the Turing test, fooling a high
proportion of people into believing they are talking to a
Rise of the robots
Mr Carpenter says we are a long way from having the
computing power or developing the algorithms needed to
achieve full artificial intelligence, but believes it will come in
the next few decades.
“We cannot quite know what will happen if a machine
exceeds our own intelligence, so we can’t know if we’ll be
infinitely helped by it, or ignored by it and sidelined, or
conceivably destroyed by it,” he says.
But he is betting that AI is going to be a positive force.
Prof Hawking is not alone in fearing for the future.
In the short term, there are concerns that clever machines
capable of undertaking tasks done by humans until now will
swiftly destroy millions of jobs.
In the longer term, the technology entrepreneur Elon Musk
has warned that AI is “our biggest existential threat”.
In his BBC interview, Prof Hawking also talks of the benefits
and dangers of the internet.
He quotes the director of GCHQ’s warning about the net
becoming the command centre for terrorists: “More must be
done by the internet companies to counter the threat, but
the difficulty is to do this without sacrificing freedom and
He has, however, been an enthusiastic early adopter of all
kinds of communication technologies and is looking forward
to being able to write much faster with his new system.
But one aspect of his own tech – his computer generated
voice – has not changed in the latest update.
Prof Hawking concedes that it’s slightly robotic, but insists
he didn’t want a more natural voice.
“It has become my trademark, and I wouldn’t change it for a
more natural voice with a British accent,” he said.
“I’m told that children who need a computer voice, want one