A sinister threat is brewing deep inside the technology laboratories of Silicon Valley.
Artificial Intelligence, disguised as helpful digital assistants and self-driving vehicles, is gaining a foothold – and it could one day spell the end for mankind.
This is according to Stephen Hawking who has warned that humanity faces an uncertain future as technology learns to think for itself and adapt to its environment.
In an article written in the Independent, Nobel Prize-winning physicist discusses Jonny Depp’s latest film Transcendence, which delves into a world where computers can surpass the abilities of humans.
Professor Hawking said dismissing the film as science fiction could be the ‘worst mistake in history’.
He argues that developments in digital personal assistants Siri, Google Now and Cortana are merely symptoms of an IT arms race which ‘pale against what the coming decades will bring.’
But Professor Hawking notes that other potential benefits of this technology could also be significant, with the potential to eradicate, war, disease and poverty.
‘Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.’
In the short and medium-term, militaries throughout the world are working to develop autonomous weapon systems, with the UN simultaneously working to ban them,.
‘Looking further ahead, there are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved,’ said Professor Hawking.
‘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.’
In fact, IBM has already developed smart chips that could pave the way for sensor networks that mimic the brain’s capacity for perception, action, and thought.
One day, it could allow computer scientists to develop a machine with a brain that is even more intelligent than that of humans.
‘As Irving Good realised in 1965, machines with superhuman intelligence could repeatedly improve their design even further, triggering what Vernor Vinge called a singularity,’ said Professor Hawking
Professor Hawking added experts are not prepared for these scenarios. Offering a comparison, he said that if aliens were to tell us saying they would arrive within a few decades, scientists would not just sit waiting for their arrival.
‘Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues.
‘All of us should ask ourselves what we can do now to improve the chances of reaping the benefits and avoiding the risks.’