Stephen Hawking: Artificial intelligence could end up like Skynet

Stephen Hawking has gone on record to say the rise of A.I. could mean the 'end of mankind.'

killer AI
Garry Knight

Despite 72-year-old Professor Stephen Hawking just receiving a serious upgrade to his computer-generated speech system, smarter tech, he told the BBC, "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

Prof Hawking says the primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have already proved very useful, but he fears the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans.

"It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate," he said. "Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."

It’s a bit disturbing when a world-renowned genius sounds in on the A.I. advancement dilemma and it seems to echo Tesla chief executive Elon Musk’s concerns. Musk has loudly professed his belief that artificial intelligence potentially could be “more dangerous than nukes.” He also warned A.I. is “our biggest existential threat.” Back in October, Musk told an audience at the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics department’s Centennial Symposium, “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. Didn’t work out.”

Stephen Hawking birthday celebration Intel Free Press

Nevertheless, at the unveiling of the Hawking’s new ACAT (Assistive Context Aware Toolkit) system in London, Hawking described it as “life-changing.” Intel has provided Hawking’s computer-based communication system since 1997 and has been “replacing his computer every two years.” Although it seems nearly unbelievable, his old communication system was older than some college sophomores.

"My old system is more than 20 years old, and I was finding it very difficult to continue to communicate effectively and do the things I love to do every day," Professor Hawking said. He hopes the new system will serve him well “for the next 20 years.”

Intel redesigned the software Hawking uses; SwiftKey has been working for two years to come up with a new text-prediction system specially designed for Hawking. SwiftKey explained that Hawking “is only able to communicate by using a small sensor which is activated by a muscle in his cheek. He uses this sensor to ‘type’ characters and numbers on his keyboard. SwiftKey’s technology has been integrated into his current system so that it can accurately predict whole words, rather than just characters.”

While the new tech should make it easier and faster for Hawking, who would love to play the part of villain in a Bond movie, an exact speed was not given. However, SwiftKey’s SDK team lead Joe Osborne said, “We estimate that our technology has roughly doubled Professor Hawking’s speech rate to date.”

SwiftKey built a personal “language model” for Professor Hawking based on his extensive works – including documents not published in the public domain. The software learns from him to ensure it predicts contextually relevant words. It is also able to analyze the content of the specific book or lecture that he might be working on, further tailoring its predictions and auto-corrections. 

Regarding Intel’s new software, Wired reported that when the Intel team that wanted to upgrade Hawking’s human-computer interface first met with Hawking in 2012, “It took him 20 minutes to write a salutation of about 30 words.” In order to speak, Hawking, who struggles with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, must first type out the words to be repeated by his synthesized voice. He uses a “single muscle in his cheek” to write the words, which are then sent to a synthesizer with the voice of “Perfect Paul." Yet his condition had deteriorated to the point of managing only one word per minute through his communication device.  

According to Lama Nachman, principal engineer and project Leader at Intel, it used to take Hawking “3-4 minutes” to open a document. “The new system uses a specific icon and takes about 10 seconds,” Nachman told The Guardian.

To use the Intel software, an infrared sensor attached to his glasses allows Hawking to control the software by moving the muscle in his cheek. As he selects letters, predictive text offers him options for completing the word, which speeds up the process. Using these predictions, he now needs to key only about 15-20 percent of the characters in any document. It has doubled his writing speed.

According to Wired, Hawking’s new ACAT user interface includes:

contextual menus that provide Hawking with various shortcuts to speak, search or email; and a new lecture manager, which gives him control over the timing of his delivery during talks. It also has a mute button, a curious feature that allows Hawking to turn off his speech synthesiser. "Because he operates his switch with his cheek, if he's eating or travelling, he creates random output," says Wood. "But there are times when he does like to come up with random speech. He does it all the time and sometimes it's totally inappropriate. I remember once he randomly typed 'x x x x', which, via his speech synthesiser, sounded like 'sex sex sex sex'."

Although his computer synthesized voice could be changed to a "more natural voice with a British accent," he does not want to change his “trademark.” I don’t know about you, but when the trademark of someone who can blow my mind says “full artificial intelligence” could potentially spell out a future that resembles Skynet movie scenes with killer robots, I listen and then feel disturbed about that news.

Killer robot Jes

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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