In July, famed physicist Stephen Hawking offered to answer questions from the public in a Reddit AMA. Unlike the usual AMA style, where an interviewee sits and answers questions in real time for several hours, Hawking (who can type only a few words per minute at most) gave several weeks for questions to be asked, then answered some of the ones with the most upvotes in his own time.
Unsurprisingly, Hawking has focused on answering questions surrounding artificial intelligence — the reported subject of the AMA. Earlier this year, Hawking signed an open letter imploring leaders to consider the possible downsides of artificially intelligent robots before we jump the gun and create them. It's not his area of expertise, but Hawking — undeniably brilliant and inspirational to boot — has a knack for getting people to listen.
Here are a few AMA answers we got ahold of ahead of time:
Your viewpoints are often presented by the media as a belief in terminator-style "Evil A.I." How would you present your beliefs?
HAWKING: You’re right: media often misrepresent what is actually said. The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence. A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble. You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants.
Is it possible for machines to become smarter than their creators?
HAWKING: It’s clearly possible for something to acquire higher intelligence than its ancestors: we evolved to be smarter than our ape-like ancestors, and Einstein was smarter than his parents.
What if machines become better at designing themselves than humans are?
HAWKING: If this happens, we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.
Are we facing imminent threat from intelligent machines, or should we just be preparing for the future?
HAWKING: There’s no consensus among AI researchers about how long it will take to build human-level AI and beyond, so please don’t trust anyone who claims to know for sure that it will happen in your lifetime or that it won’t happen in your lifetime.
When it eventually does occur, it’s likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, so there’s huge value in getting it right. We should shift the goal of AI from creating pure undirected artificial intelligence to creating beneficial intelligence. It might take decades to figure out how to do this, so let’s start researching this today rather than the night before the first strong AI is switched on.
Do you think we run the risk of "technological unemployment" where machines take all of our jobs?
HAWKING: The outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
What mystery do you find most intriguing, and why?
HAWKING: Women. My PA reminds me that although I have a PhD in physics, women should remain a mystery.
Blogger's note: Ugh, Hawking, really? No. Women aren't a mystery, we're just people.
What is your favorite song ever written?
HAWKING: “Have I Told You Lately” by Rod Stewart.
What is your favorite movie of all time?
HAWKING: "Jules et Jim," 1962
What was the last thing you saw online that you found hilarious?
HAWKING: "The Big Bang Theory"
Blogger's note: Noooooooooooooooo
The Hawking Reddit AMA is part of #maketechhuman — a global debate on how we want technology to shape our world, our societies, and our lives — led by Nokia and WIRED. For more information visit Wired.com/MakeTechHuman. You can read the rest when the answers go live at 8 am eastern.