My computer is getting much more adept at spoon-feeding me pop-ups that it thinks I will click on, based on my browsing history. This ability of artificially intelligent algorithms to analyze and predict human behavior is being honed to a science that has a dark side along with the obvious benefit of matching people with products they might buy.
After all of the science-oriented research I have been doing in the past few weeks I was not surprised to see ads popping up about Stephen Hawking, arguably one of the greatest scientific minds of our generation.
What I found was click-bait, of course, and I knew that if I bit, it would soon have me flopping around like a fish out of water.
But I clicked anyway.
How could anyone resist a headline like “Stephen Hawking predicts ‘Biggest Event in the History of Civilization’?”
The article turned out to be nothing more than an advertisement for an investment scheme. To find out what the scheme was I would need to click again.
I’m sure some eager Hawking fans out there took the bait, but all I could think was, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice …” you know the rest.
I remembered that Hawking was portrayed in the movie “The Theory of Everything” as having come up with scientific proof for the existence of God. He got so much grief about it he then came up with scientific proof that there is no need for God to exist.
Is this really the kind of person I want to take investment advice from?
My curiosity, however, did earn me another Hawking pop-up ad, and this one was much more intriguing. It led to an item in the Mirror titled “Five ways Stephen Hawking has predicted the end of the world.”
“For most of us, the New Year is a time for positive reflection on the preceding months and optimism for the year ahead, but if you’re Stephen Hawking, there’s not a huge amount to look forward to,” says the article by Anna Savva, citing a list that she says was assembled by Cambridge News.
Apparently Hawking didn’t get invited to any New Year’s Eve parties, so he spent the holiday fantasizing ways to destroy the entire planet.
The first grisly scenario is “Death by Fireball.”
He claims that by the year 2600, the world’s population will be standing shoulder to shoulder and “the electricity consumption would make the Earth glow red-hot.”
Besides being another good reason to spend less time on your personal devices, this sounds like a plot from a Dan Brown novel. In “Inferno,” Brown tells the story of a popular geneticist who believes overpopulation threatens the future of humanity, so he plans to unleash a plague that will wipe out more than half of the planet.
This is a throwback to the 1968 nonfiction work titled “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich. It claimed:
“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate …”
There were 3.5 billion people on the planet when the book was written, and here we are today at more than 7 billion people, most of them well-fed.
Hawking’s second scenario is more credible: the threat of artificial intelligence taking over humanity:
“I fear that AI may replace humans altogether. If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that replicates itself,” he says. “This will be a new form of life that will outperform humans.”
Elon Musk has also raised alarms about AI in recent months, but the potential for a robot takeover has been theorized by scientists for decades, even before Arthur C. Clarke invented the homicidal “Hal” of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
AI pioneer Ray Kurzweil predicts the exponential growth of smart machines (fueled by an equally exponential decline in the cost to build them) to the point of “singularity,” whey they will unite and be smarter than any human by the year 2040. Then who knows what they will do to us.
The Cambridge list goes on to describe more predictions, not stopping until it gets to the inevitable boogeyman of global destruction: Donald Trump. Hawking points to the president’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement:
“We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible. Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.”
I don’t know which of the above Armageddons is favored by Hawking. They are all pretty grim.
I try to think happy thoughts. Like, maybe these end-of-the-world scenarios will cancel each other out. Acid rain will melt all of our red-hot electronic devices, as well as the androids that want to take our place. Rising oceans will create a market for floating food malls that keep billions of people fat and happy. Donald Trump will make America great again.
Maybe the future will depend on which click-bait we choose, or choose to avoid.
With the right attitude, man should be able to continue meeting the challenges of survival, keeping humanity alive long enough to find out if evolution – or God — will turn us into something better.