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Stephen Hawking Warns of Potential Danger from AI and the Internet Freaks Out

I’m grumpy.  This may come as no real surprise, especially to those who know me, but, today at least, there’s a specific reason for my mood.

Mainstream Media (MSM).

It’s an institution in the modern world; an entity unto itself, even though the media machine is made up of hundreds of thousands of researchers, writers, editors, broadcasters, publishers, anchors, correspondents, and reporters.  Some would say that I just listed a new phylum of insects, but since I’m peripherally related to them, I’ll forgo that characterisation.  They do bug me though (pun intended).


Recently Stephen Hawking, renowned physicist, and world-class smarty pants, together with Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek (all geniuses in their own right), wrote an op-ed article that appeared in The Independent.  It seems the rat pack of the physics world went to the movies the week before, apparently sitting in on Johnny Depp’s most recent Hollywood blockbuster: Transcendence, and they came away with brows laden in concern for mankind’s future.  No, it wasn’t because of Depp’s acting.

Transcendence deals with artificial intelligence, or AI.  Of course, it deals with it in an apocalyptic and, some would say, unrealistic way.  Though Hawking et al, would disagree.

In their tag team on AI, Hawking and his peers issued a warning about artificial intelligence.  They said (and it’s not really possible to attribute the comments in the article to Hawking alone, but we’ll get to that) that AI could be the “worst mistake in history.”

Did you see what I did there?  That’s called paraphrasing.  They actually did say exactly that in their article, but I took it completely out of context by not including the sentiment that lead up to that statement, and that which followed it.  That’s what MSM all over the internet has done too.  You see, while The Daily Mail, Salon, and Guardian Liberty Voice, as well as countless other outlets, chose to spin the story to fit this peculiar idea they have that their readers only want doom and gloom in their headlines, not many people, it seems, bothered to click through and read Hawking’s actual article (which is quite short and readable, I might add).

That paraphrasing above?  The entire quote should read:

“…it’s tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction. But this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake in history.”

That changes things a bit, doesn’t it?  This is why I’m grumpy.  Stephen Hawking and his colleagues made an attempt to open a dialogue, to seed a thought in the public mind, that Artificial Intelligence is coming, and we have some choices to make, as a collective society.  Yes, they warned about the militaristic monopolisation of artificially intelligent weapons and nanotechnology, yes they argued that the so-called singularity, which posits that artificial intelligence might reach a point of hyper-self-development, could drastically out think humanity in a frighteningly short period of time.  Yes, they warned us of the potential dangers of AI, but that’s not all they said.


They espoused the enormous benefits artificial intelligence could bring to humanity, in eliminating hunger, poverty, even disease.  In leveling the playing field to allow all corners of the Earth to compete for success on equal terms.

The most important thing they talked about is the imperative of thinking about what we’re doing.  AI research is progressing at incredible speed right now, and there is no theoretical limit to where it can go, but we must gain control over that progression, and we must maintain control.

There’s a relatively old concept in computer science and artificial intelligence research, known as grey goo.  Despite that somewhat innocuous and perhaps even silly name, grey goo is a potentially devastating concept.  It says that self-replicating artificially intelligent nanotechnology, tiny robots that use natural resources for replication and fuel, would be able to completely decimate the entire planet in just a few days if such technology got out of control.  As it could do accidentally, or even as a poorly thought out weapon.  But it needn’t get to that point.  The concept of grey goo, which is little more than a thought experiment at this point, provides us with an excellent opportunity to learn and to plan.  It allows us to conceive of situations that could come about, and to take steps to avoid those potential catastrophes.


No, we can’t predict everything that will happen in the future, but we can mitigate that failing with laws and developmental procedures and ethical edicts.  But to me, that’s beside the point at the moment.

As I mentioned above, there were four authors on that article, yet the only one whose name you’ll see in MSM coverage of this is Stephen Hawking’s.  Why is that?  This isn’t the first time this has happened either.  Back in 2012, Hawking “warned” against seeking contact with aliens, and MSM did exactly the same thing in that case.  They grossly misrepresented his words, capitalized on the public familiarity with his name, and click baited everyone into thinking that Hawking not only believes aliens exist (which he may or may not actually believe), but that he thinks they’re all out to wipe us off the face of the planet.  Let it be known, he said nothing of the sort.

Who’s at fault here though?  The media?  Sure, they’re typically a bunch of ratings hungry sensationalists, but we already know this, we’ve known this for decades.  Are we to blame?  Maybe.  Perhaps we should be a little more discerning with our news reading habits.  Perhaps we should hold them accountable.

What about Hawking though?  Doesn’t he have some culpability here?  I think he does…I think he deserves the lion’s share.  Remember what I called him above?  A World Renowned Smarty Pants?  Yeah, he’s pretty much the smartest guy on the planet at the moment.  He rivals the gold standard of genius in pop culture, Albert Einstein.  Shouldn’t he know better than to make such inflammatory remarks, even ones camouflaged amongst more tempered words?  He clearly didn’t say what MSM seems to want you to think he said, but shouldn’t he have seen that coming?  I think he damn well should have.


Let’s remember though, he didn’t write that article alone.  Even though everyone seems focused on his name, and only his name, this was a group effort, and like I said earlier, none of the comments made in The Independent’s article can be attributed to Stephen Hawking, without acknowledging that Russell, Tegmark, and Wilczek contributed just as much…among these four men, you can’t tell me that none of them saw how this was going to be twisted by the media.

However you want to split these particular hairs, the fact is, Hawking didn’t condemn AI research, and he didn’t predict the end of our world at the hands – or claws, or whatever – of super-smart machines bent on our destruction.  And none of them said that artificial intelligence is humanity’s greatest mistake.

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  • As usual, right on point!

  • Why did MDM focus solely on Hawking? Because like Einstein, of the 4 authors his is the only household name.

    BTW here’s a quote by Einstein: “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.” Which is why I think Hawking, Russell, Tegmark & Wilczek are a bit delusional if they think the emergence of the AI is gonna be the solution to all the problems we failed to solve for the last 10,000 years or so.

    In the last 30 of those years, we’ve been churning more & more fancy gadgets, and we’ve been soiling our planet with them, causing havoc on the ecosystem & disrupting the climate. So what’s the current mentality to solve the mess? Why keep on churning more gadgets, because one of them is totally going to fix things for us!

  • I think that was their underlying point, actually. That we have a choice here, we can either do things as we’ve always done, and let the military minds and corporate elites monopolise the coming boon of technology, or we can, as a society, take charge of the development and use and we can reap the rewards in the form of finding solutions to these age old problems.

  • I guess. But I still see their position deeply influenced by the Western obsession with progress, that no matter what we do, we HAVE to keep pushing forward. There’s a fork in the road ahead, they say, so we’d better choose wisely –so how about we choose to stop for a while, maybe even take a few steps back?

  • ivr

    “Perhaps we should be a little more discerning with our news reading habits. Perhaps we should hold them accountable.” Ha ha ha, That’s not going to happen. It seems to me that the more information there is, the less the general public will actually read it. And actually, I think ‘skimming’ and headline reading is now the new standard of information gathering in all fields. Politicians, academics and scientist all seem guilty of this practice. Thanks to the MSM and the relentless drive of internet sites to get eyes on the page, there is, in general, less thinking and more reacting.

  • Jorge Rhor

    I do not think that we have a “social” mindset anymore.
    We as a “group”, that are interested in similar subjects, can talk about necessary changes on our world and the way we live in symbiosis with this planet.

    But just go outside, who else is thinking the same thing?, the %99.99999 of people just do what they need to do without considering ANY of the topics we see in this website. We will keep buying the latest smartphone or tablet or laptop or smartwatch. We will keep watching ads on TV. We will keep paying attention to MSM.
    And only a really small group will talk about subjects like this, and do nothing more than that, talk.
    We leave “progress” to the big corporations because they are the ones with the resources needed to advance in research. We humans, as a social group, do not exist anymore because we cannot think socially, meaning, globally. And that is what it would take to have a real change in what we call now as progress.

  • Unfortunately, I think you’re exactly right. Intellectual apathy and indifference to the greater world (outside of one’s own circle that is) are my greatest pet peeves, but I’m just a blogger, what real change can I affect? Unless more people read my work, the reach of these ideas will be entirely impotent.

  • Hayden O’Connor

    I too really hate it when they do that, and that’s exactly why, when someone tells me an amazing piece of news, the first thing I ask is ‘where did you read that?’

    But, aside from this, I am interested in this very issue – AI being more intelligent than humans and ultimately wiping out of the entire human society. Muhahah!

    What interests me the most is next: OK, well, apparently AI can already outperform humans in many things. But, I personally believe that it is complex emotions that are the outcome of high intelligence. Therefore, it is impossible for AI to be highly intelligent without spontaneously developed emotions.

    Although, this particular comic refers to AI without emotions, as a genuine AI. It’s a fun read, but I don’t believe that it will be like that. I think that if someone/something is intelligent enough to develop self-awareness, then it’s impossible NOT to have or develop emotions, at least toward himself/itself. If you understand what I wanted to say 🙂