The Study of Stupidity

“We spend a great deal of time studying history which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity”.


For a man with impaired speech, Professor Stephen Hawking is a master of the bon mot.  This gem came from the brief introductory remarks he gave on Wednesday at the opening of the new Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University.  His point, of course, was to congratulate the centre on looking forward instead of back.  He is not, however, a wholesale supporter of artificial intelligence (AI) and famously signed last year’s letter urging restraint and control over the development of AI weaponry.  Another signatory was Elon Musk whose autonomous car was once again in the news yesterday.

While praising the hope that AI offers in terms of solving the problems of disease, poverty and environmental decay, he was cautious:

“The rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not know which.”

As Rockfire recently reported, there is a good case for using robots in organisations such as the NHS and City AM reported yesterday that the hedge fund industry is adjusting to – and even welcoming – the arrival of AI in its trading and execution functions where eliminating human error could save firms’ reputations as well as eye watering sums of money.[2]

Two decades have already passed since Kasparov was beaten at chess by a computer.  Last week, the US government published its thoughts, hopes and fears for AI [3].  The report distinguishes between AI for a specific skill, such as winning a chess game, and AGI – artificial general intelligence – which exhibits competence across a broad range of interactions and activities, emulating as far as possible the behaviour of a human.  The report has three main concerns: weaponry, the safety of autonomous vehicles and the threat to jobs from more reliable, less emotional, automated tools.

Tesla and its competitors will iron out the safety issues of autonomous vehicles in no time and, as Rockfire’s earlier article argued, there is every reason to believe that the rise of the robot will create, rather than destroy, jobs.  The remaining concern is one that Professor Hawking would agree with and perhaps he is warning that humanity might once more prove itself congenitally stupid by advancing artificial intelligence to the point where we create the weapons of our own destruction.

[1] Future of Life Institute.  Autonomous weapons: an open letter from AI and Robotics researchers.  28 July 2015.

[2] City AM.  Robots, AI and Digital Disruption.  20 October 2016.

[3] US National Science and Technology Council.  Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.  October 2016.