How far this could go depends on whom you ask. Could a machine produce the abstruse and unintuitive principles of quantum theory, or Einstein’s bulwark principles of relativity? Could it produce a theory that we humans can’t understand? Could we wind up in the Matrix, or a world run by SkyNet, like in the “Terminator” series?

I asked a random sample of theoretical physicists whether they were ready to be replaced.

“The way you are asking is adding to the confusion,” said Jaron Lanier, a computer engineer now working with Microsoft. The field of computer science, he said, is rife with romantic overstatements about the power and threat of superintelligent machines.

“Can we form a question in such a way that we can do the computation?” he asked. “Remove the romanticism. It’s not a creature like a cat, it’s just an algorithm running.”