Stephen Hawking issues a warning from the grave

This is more than a bit creepy but worth considering with an eye toward the future. Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking passed away earlier this year, far exceeding the lifespan many of his doctors expected for him after he was first diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease early in his life. Over the span of his career, he made a number of predictions about the future and what it held for humanity as our scientific and technological prowess progressed. Some of those predictions were quite positive, but others held dire warnings. Now, it turns out that he had one last trick up his sleeve in the form of a book which wasn’t ready for release until recently. In it, Hawking warns about the potential dangers of messing around with designer DNA and rushing too quickly into the world of Artificial Intelligence. (USA Today)

Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who died in March, warns of both rises in advanced artificial intelligence and genetically-enhanced “superhumans” in a book publishing Tuesday…

“While primitive forms of artificial intelligence developed so far have proved very useful, I fear the consequences of creating something that can match or surpass humans,” Hawking wrote. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

After covering some of the AI material, we move on to the warning about “superhumans.” And they’re not the good guys from the comic books. This portion deals with our early adventures using the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR.

Hawking said initially gene-editing technology will be used to correct genes leading to diseases like cystic fibrosis, but people won’t resist using the technology to make them stronger or smarter.

“Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete,” wrote Hawking. “Presumably, they will die out, or become unimportant. Instead, there will be a race of self-designing beings who are improving themselves at an ever-increasing rate.”

This is actually a field of ethics which has been under debate for many decades. Using science to prolong human lifespans, eliminate diseases and ensure “desirable” attributes may sound wonderful at first glance. But what if the technology is so expensive that only the most powerful and wealthy have access to it? The short-lived, disease-ridden peasants are probably going to tire of that situation quickly and try to take matters into their own hands.

But even if that’s not the case, when talking about the human genome we’re still largely swimming in uncharted waters. The only thing we seem to know for sure about much of our DNA structure is that it’s too complicated for us to understand all of it. Genes we once thought of as “junk genes” are constantly turning on and off throughout our lives. Making a change to one could lead to downstream effects we haven’t even imagined and random changes to our machinery are rarely beneficial. We could be “editing” our way into the next super disease that wipes us out.

The same goes for Artificial Intelligence. One day you’ve got your entire toaster manufacturing plant running through the work of robots and the next day they’ve created a swarm of nano-bots which devour the entire world before you know what’s happening. And that’s probably the scariest part of what Hawking saw coming. Most of these things would be of our own creation and by the time they get out of hand, we won’t even realize it until it’s too late.

Now that I’ve cheered everyone up I suppose I’ll go look for a story involving pigeons. I’ve always liked pigeons.