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Hawking tries hard -- and fails -- to be optimistic about AI

Commentary: His effort to envision a positive future is overwhelmed by his belief that "AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization."

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Technology Experts Gather At The Annual Web Summit Conference

Stephen Hawking wants to believe the world will be a better place. He really does.

Horacio Villalobos - Corbis / Getty Images

Stephen Hawking has long expressed his fears that artificial intelligence will sideline humanity -- or worse

On Monday, the renowned physicist tried out more a optimistic view.

"Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one, industrialization. We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty. Every aspect of our lives will be transformed," he said in a video speech at the opening night of the Web Summit conference here in Lisbon. 

Now that sounds like a very happy new world, doesn't it?

Hawking went further. 

"I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world, that it can work in harmony with us," he said.

He suggested that with an awareness of the dangers, we can create best practices and take action early to anticipate the societal changes AI will inevitably bring.

Wait, this is the same scientist who said humans are so slow at the evolution thing that AI could simply wipe us out?

The extremely cynical might suggest that this new optimism was related to the fact that with his invitation to speak here came from Feedzai, a company seeking to use AI to prevent fraud.

Please don't worry. The old Hawking soon reappeared. 

"Success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don't know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it," he explained.

If you didn't get the entirely bleak potential of all this, he added: "Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy."

The outlook is certainly grim, but I'll try on an optimistic mantle. 

If we have severe problems with AI, perhaps they will be relatively short-lived. After all, Hawking has already insisted that we're treating the world so badly that we'll have to leave Earth in a hundred years anyway.

So sit tight, work as well as you can with our new robot overlords and your great-grandkids can make their escape to the moon.

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