The world's most famous physicist is warning about the risks posed by machine superintelligence, saying that it could be the most significant thing to ever happen in human history — and possibly the last.
As we've discussed extensively here at io9, artificial superintelligence represents a potential existential threat to humanity, so it's good to see such a high profile scientist both understand the issue and do his part to get the word out.
Hawking, along with computer scientist Stuart Russell and physicists Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek, says that the potential benefits could be huge, but we cannot predict what we might achieve when AI is magnified — both good and bad.
Writing in The Independent, the scientists warn:
Looking further ahead, there are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved: there is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains. An explosive transition is possible, although it might play out differently from in the movie: as Irving Good realised in 1965, machines with superhuman intelligence could repeatedly improve their design even further, triggering what Vernor Vinge called a "singularity" and Johnny Depp's movie character calls "transcendence".
One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.
So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, "We'll arrive in a few decades," would we just reply, "OK, call us when you get here – we'll leave the lights on"? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues outside non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future Life Institute. All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.
Read the entire article here.