Stephen Hawking, probably the world’s leading living theoretical physicist, has recently received a significant hardware and software upgrade courtesy of Intel — and to celebrate, he has conducted a few interviews. Hawking, whose sole method of communicating with the outside world is via a muscle in his cheek, is never one to shy away from the contentious or mildly crazy — but this time, we have a couple of humdingers. First, Hawking says he would love to be the big baddie in a James Bond film — “I think the wheelchair and the computer voice would fit the part.” Second, he believes that artificial intelligence “could spell the end of the human race.” Oh, and there was something about the Higgs boson ultimately wiping out the universe, too.
Hawking’s first interview was with Wired UK. The online version of the interview mostly talks about the work that Intel put into Hawking’s new and upgraded cheek-to-text machine. Apparently it now uses technology from SwiftKey (yes, the same company that makes alternate keyboards for Android and iOS) to improve word prediction and massively speed up Hawking’s data entry speed (previously it was as low as one word per minute). Intel loaded up Hawking’s new computer with all of his previous works, so SwiftKey’s contextual predictions are pretty good: “The phrase ‘the black hole’ doesn’t require any typing,” Intel’s Lama Nachman told Wired. “Selecting ‘the’ automatically predicts ‘black’. Selecting ‘black’ automatically predicts ‘hole’.”
In the print version of the interview, Wired included this rather glorious tidbit: “My ideal role would be a baddie in a James Bond film. I think the wheelchair and the computer voice would fit the part.” At first I just wanted to laugh this off as the folly of a Cambridge-educated Brit — but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Hawking would make a fantastic modern-day Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Instead of a giant laser, Stephernst Hawkfeld would be building a giant singularity that would wipe out the Earth — nay, the universe. And of course, instead of a white cat he’d have a miniature caged black hole resting on his knee.
In a separate interview with the BBC, Hawking spoke about how we should be very wary of developing “full artificial intelligence” as it “could spell the end of the human race.” While the interview is conducted in layman’s terms, Hawking appears to be talking about the danger of the technological singularity — a nebulous point in the future where computers (and AI) become advanced enough to replicate and evolve without human intervention. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate,” Hawking said. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
Hawking isn’t saying anything particularly groundbreaking here — the concept of the technological singularity has been around for a long time, and it was popularized by such movies as Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and hundreds of other works that involve computers gaining sentience/self-awareness and punishing their human creators. Back in April, SpaceX’s Elon Musk said much the same thing, warning us that AI is “potentially more dangerous than nukes.”
Finally, to wrap things up, one more fun little doozy: Back in September, Hawking prefaced his new book Starmus with a haunting theory about how the Higgs boson could result in the catastrophic destruction of the universe. In particular, he said that, “The Higgs potential has the worrisome feature that it might become metastable at energies above 100 billion gigaelectronvolts. This could mean that the universe could undergo catastrophic vacuum decay, with a bubble of the true vacuum expanding at the speed of light. This could happen at any time and we wouldn’t see it coming.” Fortunately, such a situation is unlikely to ever happen naturally — and a particle accelerator that could reach 100 billion gigaelectronvolts (GeV) would be much, much larger than the Large Hadron Collider; it would be need to be “larger than the Earth,” in fact, according to Hawking.
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