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Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking chats with Larry King. (Credit: Ora.TV)

British physicist Stephen Hawking says the potential threat from artificial intelligence isn’t just a far-off “Terminator”-style nightmare. He’s already pointing to signs that AI is going down the wrong track.

“Governments seem to be engaged in an AI arms race, designing planes and weapons with intelligent technologies,” Hawking told veteran interviewer Larry King. “The funding for projects directly beneficial to the human race, such as improved medical screening, seems a somewhat lower priority.”

It’s not surprising that Hawking is worried about AI – he’s been issuing warning for years. But the concern over an AI arms race adds a short-term spin to the long-term concern.

There’s certainly an AI race going on, spanning a spectrum from Microsoft’s vision of AI-enhanced applications to the self-driving cars that so many companies seem to be working on. Hawking has joined forces with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and thousands of other techies in expressing deep concern about the military side of AI.

In the “Larry King Now” online interview, available via Ora.TV, Hawking acknowledged that AI can bring lots of benefits to humanity. “Imagine algorithms able to quickly assess scientists’ ideas, catch cancer earlier and predict the stock markets,” he said.

But Hawking said AI’s reach will have to be strictly regulated.

He disagreed with the idea put forth by futurist Ray Kurzweil that humans and thinking machines will merge harmoniously in just a few decades:

“I think that his views are both too simplistic and too optimistic. Exponential growth will not continue to accelerate. Something we don’t predict will interrupt it, as has happened with similar forecasts in the past. And I don’t think that advances in artificial intelligence will necessarily be benign. Once machines reach the critical stage of being able to evolve themselves, we cannot predict whether their goals will be the same as ours.”

That’s just the latest volley in a long-running debate between Hawking and Kurzweil. Back in 2014, Kurzweil pointed out that Hawking was himself the beneficiary of AI technology – for example, the voice synthesis software that helps him cope with his debilitating neurogenerative disease. Kurzweil argues that humanity has a “moral imperative” to realize the promise of AI while controlling the peril.

Larry King’s interview was timed to coincide with the Starmus Festival, a science extravaganza on the Canary Islands that is celebrating Hawking’s life and career this year. Hawking, one of the world’s longest-surviving and best-known patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, will turn 75 next January.

Here are a few more tidbits from the interview:

  • AI isn’t the only threat facing humanity, Hawking said. Overcrowding and air pollution (including rising greenhouse-gas emissions) also rank among the top concerns. “Will we be too late to avoid dangerous levels of global warming?” Hawking asked. He didn’t sound optimistic. When King asked Hawking how things have changed in the six years since their last interview, the physicist replied: “We certainly have not become less greedy or less stupid.”
  • Hawking is best-known for his theoretical work on black holes, including a recent paper claiming that black holes don’t destroy all traces of the things that fall into them. But the discovery that most surprised him has to do with a different topic: the finding that some mysterious factor is speeding up the expansion of the universe. That factor is known as dark energy, but Hawking said “this is just a name given to something we don’t understand.”
  • The way Hawking sees it, the most mysterious question about the universe has to do with its meaning. “Why do the universe and all the laws of nature exist?” he said. “Are they necessary? In one sense, they are, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. But is there a deeper reason?”
  • Years ago, Hawking said he found women to be a “complete mystery” – which some commentators called out as a bit sexist. When King reminded Hawking about that remark, the scientist replied, “I have learned a lot about women since then.” Hawking went on to note that King has been married eight times to seven different women. “Is that the triumph of hope over experience?” the scientist asked. “You make a good point, Stephen,” King answered. “I think the answer is yes.”
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