Hawking has continued to drive at the forefront of science and tantalize us through theoretical speculation on everything from the consequences of artificial intelligence to the possibility of inter-dimensional travel through stable wormholes.
Not since Sir Isaac Newton, has a British scientist held the captive attention of the scientific community in America and abroad. From his #1 New York Times bestselling book A Brief History of Time to his more recent personal story depicted in The Theory of Everything, Hawking has continued to drive at the forefront of science and tantalize us through theoretical speculation on everything from the consequences of artificial intelligence to the possibility of inter-dimensional travel through stable wormholes.
In an open letter to the world, announced on July 28th at the start of the 2015 IJCAI Conference, Hawking and a group of well known and respected scientists signed on to voice specific concerns regarding the emergence of armed warfare through the use of third generation artificial intelligence and automated weaponry. Years, not decades, was the time frame that couched the possibility of self-directed killer machines in a new military arms race. It was not the possibility of self awareness that was specifically mentioned. The concern was that reducing the collateral damage and threat to human life will lower the threshold for war, and so the letter pitched a ban on automated offensive weapons that are beyond reasonable human control.
Hawking went beyond the letter with earlier comments to the BBC where he said, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Hawking is not the only scientist to raise the alarm over the emergence of what popularly became known as Skynet, depicted in the famous Terminator movie series featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not all scientists agree with Hawking, though, and many see the emergence of artificial intelligence as a positive force.
It is not just Hawking’s unease about the possibility of AI’s passing the Turing test that has captured public awareness. In a shift from his earlier work on black holes, Hawking proposed two possible solutions to the quandary of the enigmatic features of space, which were once thought to violate fundamental principles of quantum physics. One solution was the storage of information at the event horizon instead of inside the black hole itself. The other possibility, was much more intriguing. Hawking suggested that black holes could function as a gate to a parallel universe and, “The existence of alternative histories with black holes suggests this might be possible.”
Taking both topics into consideration, one could speculate that a race of self aware automated machines might one day traverse the multiverse, reminiscent of the self-improving race of killer robots known as the Borg, portrayed in Star Trek The Next Generation and Star Trek Voyager.
Hawking has also speculated on the possibility, emphasis on the word possibility, of time travel. He suggested that it may be possible to capture as stable wormhole, and with technology developed in the future, we could someday use the wormhole by expanding it and moving it near Earth, allowing for both time and space travel.
Time travel shows up in numerous science fiction stories, such as the episode Before the Flood in the ninth season of Dr. Who. Almost always, though, the possibility of time travel is thrown into question with the emergence of a time paradox. Conversely, the time traveler is limited by the fact that there are rules of time travel that prevent a paradox from occurring, so either the traveler cannot change the past or else there are consequences that reverse the changes over time or cause the end the world.
I posit a different reading of time travel. Some scientists have speculated that we live in a multiverse with an infinite number of parallel universes, each of which is different in some degree than our own. If one travels through time, it might be possible that a new universe, one parallel to our own, is created with a new branch, thus avoiding the paradox altogether since both worlds now exist.
Regardless of the outcome of his theories and speculation, Stephen Hawking is a true visionary, one who has touched the fabric of imaginative thought and scientific study. Whether his concerns over artificial intelligence are justified or his possibility of inter-world travel pans out, his creative scientific mind remains one that will continue in inspire in his lifetime and beyond.