Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence may supersede humans, disrupt economy

 Stephen Hawking, the world-famous theoretical physicist, recorded in advance a keynote speech titled Guiding AI to benefit humanity and the environment for the 2017 Global Mobile Internet Conference (GMIC) in Beijing, which has kicked off on Thursday at the China National Convention Center. The development of artificial intelligence, as one of the key topics for the innovative technology event, has spurred interest in Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time.

During the half-hour long speech, he voiced concerns about the possibility of human beings being competed against and superseded by artificial intelligence. “In the future, AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours,” he said, shedding doubts on beliefs that humans can command the rate of technology for a long time. Hawking believed that more research should be done in bid to find really effective solutions to control the problem.

Here follows is the full text of Stephen Hawking’s speech:

Over my lifetime, I have seen very significant societal changes. Probably one of the most significant, and one that is increasingly concerning people today, is the rise of artificial intelligence. In short, I believe that the rise of powerful AI, will be either the best thing, or the worst, ever to happen to humanity.  I have to say now, that we do not yet know which. But we should do all we can, to ensure that its future development benefits us, and our environment. We have no other option. I see the development of AI, as a trend with its own problems that we know must be dealt with, now and into the future.

The progress in AI research and development is swift. And perhaps we should all stop for a moment, and focus our research, not only on making AI more capable, but on maximizing its societal benefit. Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, two thousand and eight to two thousand and nine, Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up to recently had focused largely on techniques, that are neutral with respect to purpose. But our AI systems must do what we want them to do. Inter-disciplinary research can be a way forward: ranging from economics, law, and philosophy, to computer security, formal methods, and of course various branches of AI itself.

Everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence, and I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain, and what can be achieved by a computer.  It therefore follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it. But we 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. Indeed, we have concerns that clever machines will be capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs.

While primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far, have proved very useful, I fear the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans. AI would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded. It will bring great disruption to our economy. And in the future, AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours. Although I am well-known as an optimist regarding the human race, others believe that humans can command the rate of technology for a decently long time, and that the potential of AI to solve many of the world’s problems will be realized. I am not so sure.

In January 2015, I, along with the technological entrepreneur, Elon Musk, and many other AI experts, signed an open letter on artificial intelligence, calling for serious research on its impact on society. In the past, Elon Musk has warned that super human artificial intelligence, is possible of providing incalculable benefits, but if deployed incautiously, will have an adverse effect on the human race. He and I, sit on the scientific advisory board for the Future of Life Institute, an organization working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity, and which drafted the open letter.

This called for concrete research on how we could prevent potential problems, while also reaping the potential benefits AI offers us, and is designed to get AI researchers and developers to pay more attention to AI safety. In addition, for policymakers and the general public, the letter is meant to be informative, but not alarmist. We think it is very important, that everybody knows that AI researchers are seriously thinking about these concerns and ethical issues. For example, AI has the potential to eradicate disease and poverty, but researchers must work to create AI that can be controlled. The four-paragraph letter, titled Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence, an Open Letter, lays out detailed research priorities in the accompanying twelve-page document.

For the last 20 years or so, AI has been focused on the problems surrounding the construction of intelligent agents, systems that perceive and act in some environment. In this context, intelligence is related to statistical and economic notions of rationality. Colloquially, the ability to make good decisions, plans, or inferences. As a result of this recent work, there has been a large degree of integration and cross-fertilisation among AI, machine learning, statistics, control theory, neuroscience, and other fields. The establishment of shared theoretical frameworks, combined with the availability of data and processing power, has yielded remarkable successes in various component tasks, such as speech recognition, image classification, autonomous vehicles, machine translation, legged locomotion, and question-answering systems.

As development in these areas and others, moves from laboratory research to economically valuable technologies, a virtuous cycle evolves, whereby even small improvements in performance, are worth large sums of money, prompting further and greater investments in research. There is now a broad consensus that AI research is progressing steadily, and that its impact on society is likely to increase. The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer, is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve, when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide. But, and as I have said, the eradication of disease and poverty is not unfathomable. Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits, while avoiding potential pitfalls.

Artificial intelligence research is now progressing rapidly. And this research can be discussed as short-term and long-term. Some short-term concerns relate to autonomous vehicles, from civilian drones and self-driving cars. For example, a self-driving car may, in an emergency, have to decide between a small risk of a major accident, and a large probability of a small accident. Other concerns relate to lethal intelligent autonomous weapons. Should they be banned? If so, how autonomy should be precisely defined. If not, how culpability for any misuse or malfunction should be apportioned. Other issues include privacy concerns, as AI becomes increasingly able to interpret large surveillance datasets, and how to best manage the economic impact of jobs displaced by AI.

Long-term concerns comprise primarily of the potential loss of control of AI systems, via the rise of super-intelligences that do not act in accordance with human wishes, and that such powerful systems would threaten humanity. Are such dystrophic outcomes possible? If so, how might these situations arise? What kind of investments in research should be made, to better understand and to address the possibility of the rise of a dangerous super-intelligence, or the occurrence of an intelligence explosion?

Existing tools for harnessing AI, such as reinforcement learning, and simple utility functions, are inadequate to solve this. Therefore more research is necessary to find and validate a robust solution to the control problem.

Recent landmarks, such as the self-driving cars already mentioned, or a computer winning at the game of Go, are signs of what is to come.  Enormous levels of investment are pouring into this technology.  The achievements we have seen so far, will surely pale against what the coming decades will bring, and we cannot predict what we might achieve, when our own minds are amplified by AI.  Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one, industrialization. Every aspect of our lives will be transformed. In short, success in creating AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization.

But it could also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.  I have said in the past that the development of full AI, could spell the end of the human race, such as the ultimate use of powerful autonomous weapons. Earlier this year, I, along with other international scientists, supported the United Nations convention to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons.  We await the outcome with nervous anticipation.

Currently, nine nuclear powers have access to roughly 14,000 nuclear weapons, any one of which can obliterate cities, contaminate wide swathes of land with radioactive fall-out, and the most horrible hazard of all, cause a nuclear-induced winter, in which the fires and smoke might trigger a global mini-ice age. The result is a complete collapse of the global food system, and apocalyptic unrest, potentially killing most people on earth. We scientists bear a special responsibility for nuclear weapons, since it was scientists who invented them, and discovered that their effects are even more horrific than first thought.

At this stage, I may have possibly frightened you all here today, with talk of doom. I apologize. But it is important that you, as attendees to today’s conference, recognize the position you hold in influencing future research and development of today’s technology. I believe that we join together, to call for support of international treaties, or signing letters presented to individual governmental powers. Technology leaders and scientists are doing what they can, to obviate the rise of uncontrollable AI.

In October last year, I opened a new center in Cambridge, England, which will attempt to tackle some of the open-ended questions raised by the rapid pace of development in AI research. The Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence is a multi-disciplinary institute, dedicated to researching the future of intelligence, as crucial to the future of our civilization and our species.

We spend a great deal of time studying history, which let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity. So it’s a welcome change, that people are studying instead the future of intelligence. We are aware of the potential dangers, but I am at heart an optimist, and believe that the potential benefits of creating intelligence are huge. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world, by industrialization.

Every aspect of our lives will be transformed. My colleague at the institute, Huw Price, has acknowledged that the center came about partially as a result of the university’s Centre for Existential Risk. That institute examines a wider range of potential problems for humanity, while the Leverhulme Centre has a more narrow focus.

Recent developments in the advancement of AI, include a call by the European Parliament for drafting a set of regulations, to govern the yooss and creation of robots and AI. Somewhat surprisingly, this includes a form of electronic personhood, to ensure the rights and responsibilities for the most capable and advanced AI. A European Parliament spokesman has commented that as a growing number of areas in our daily lyves are increasingly affected by robots, we need to ensure that robots are, and will remain, in the service of humans.

The report as presented to MEPs, makes it clear that it believes the world is on the cusp of a new industrial robot revolution. It examines whether or not providing legal rights for robots as electronic persons, on a par with the legal definition of corporate personhood, would be permissible. But stresses that at all times, researchers and designers should ensure all robotic design incorporates a kill switch. This didn’t help the scientists on board the spaceship with Hal, the malfunctioning robotic computer in Kubrick’s two thousand and one, a Space Odyssey, but that was fiction. We deal with fact. Lorna Brazell, a partner at the multinational law firm Osborne Clarke, says in the report that we don’t give whales and gorillas personhood, so there is no need to jump at robotic personhood.

But the wariness is there. The report acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity, and challenge the human robot relationship. Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical, and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favor of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which has three months to decide what legislative steps it will take.

We too, have a role to play in making sure the next generation has not just the opportunity, but the determination, to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that they can go on to fulfil their potential, and create a better world for the whole human race. This is what I meant, when I was talking to you just now about the importance of learning and education. We need to take this beyond a theoretical discussion of how things should be, and take action, to make sure they have the opportunity to get on board. We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting, if precarious place to be, and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.