He’s one of the most intelligent people in the world. He’s a movie star. And now he’s one of the participants of the Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) series, too. Physicist Stephen Hawking this week gave his answers to his AMA session. What did you miss? We’ve summarized the questions and answers below.

Q: Is Artificial Intelligence evil?

A. The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble. You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants. Please encourage your students to think not only about how to create AI, but also about how to ensure its beneficial use.

Q: Should we watch out for the threats of AI right now or only in the distant future?

A: The latter. There’s no consensus among AI researchers about how long it will take to build human-level AI and beyond, so please don’t trust anyone who claims to know for sure that it will happen in your lifetime or that it won’t happen in your lifetime. When it eventually does occur, it’s likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, so there’s huge value in getting it right. We should shift the goal of AI from creating pure undirected artificial intelligence to creating beneficial intelligence. It might take decades to figure out how to do this, so let’s start researching this today rather than the night before the first strong AI is switched on.

Q: Can Artifical Intelligence ever be “smarter” than its creator, the human kind?

A: It’s clearly possible for a something to acquire higher intelligence than its ancestors: we evolved to be smarter than our ape-like ancestors, and Einstein was smarter than his parents. The line you ask about is where an AI becomes better than humans at AI design, so that it can recursively improve itself without human help. If this happens, we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.

Q: Would an AI have the same basic drives as humans, i.e. to survive and reproduce?

A: An AI that has been designed rather than evolved can in principle have any drives or goals. However, as emphasized by Steve Omohundro, an extremely intelligent future AI will probably develop a drive to survive and acquire more resources as a step toward accomplishing whatever goal it has, because surviving and having more resources will increase its chances of accomplishing that other goal. This can cause problems for humans whose resources get taken away.

Q: Will the world ever get to “technological unemployment” because of advanced automation?

A: If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

You can read the full AMA with Stephen Hawking, as well as thousands of further reader comments, on Reddit.

Have you read?
Stephen Hawking: ‘We are all time-travellers’

Author: Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge. Reporting by Peter Vanham, Media Lead, US and Industries, Media Relations, World Economic Forum

Image: Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking addresses a public meeting in Cape Town May 11, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings