Is Artificial Intelligence A Threat To Mankind? Stephen Hawking Thinks It Is.

The brave new world is no longer some Aldous Huxley flight of fancy or even fantasy. It’s here. And it’s with us now. It’s called Artificial Intelligence and it’s spawning a flourishing new, and what its advocates hope, will be a massively, profitable industry. Those involved in its development say Ai is nothing more than a benign computer program that does human quality analysis. In other words, it is designed to replace the human element in many tiring, dangerous or time-consuming jobs. Companies like IBM, Google and Apple are spending huge sums of money developing Ai. They say it will be used to manufacture very specific programs designed to improve our society.

Nevertheless, there is widespread fear and distrust of Ai. Who can forget the talking red light called HAL 9000 in 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL, short for Heuristically programed Algorithmic computer. HAL became a living, not quite breathing personification of evil. A computer, who could talk and was capable of independent, rational thought and ultimately a threat to the human race. So is that what Ai really is? Its supporters say Ai is not alive and never will be. And while it might be capable of performing tasks that a human being would do, it has no genuine creativity, emotions, ambitions or desires other than what is programed into it or what it detects from the environment. Unlike science fiction, or what’s made into movies, Ai has no desire to mate, reproduce or have a large family of little Ai’s running around causing havoc. But in a limited context, Ai can think like us and set tasks for itself. But just like any other computer program or technology, its creators decide its role in society. And we are told those creators have no intention of using it to enslave humanity. They point to the fact that Artificially intelligent computer programs, operate as specialists. There is a network of Ai sub programs each of them individually handling tasks like computer vision, language, machine learning and robotic movement. So Ai is not a ‘he’ or a ‘she’ or even an ‘it’ but a ‘they.’

Supporters of Ai do acknowledge and concede that, like all other computer programs, Artificial Intelligence is ultimately controlled by human beings. It can be designed as a war machine, creating weapons that carry a nuclear or biological payload capable of wiping out the human race. But, they say, that is nothing new. We’ve been able to do that in the past without the need of Ai. In any case it’s not the fault of science. We human beings are to blame. We shouldn’t fear Ai but we should fear the people who might want to misuse it.

I don’t know about you but I don’t find the words and thoughts of Ai supporters particularly comforting or reassuring. And, as it turns out I’m not alone. Two eminent thinkers, Stephen Hawking, a world renowned Astrophysicist and Elon Musk, the guy behind electric car manufacturer, Tesla Motors, PayPal and rocket manufacturer, Space X. Both of these prominent individuals believe Ai is a doomsday prophecy. And while they are not talking about robotic armies rising up to take over the world, they talk of a cataclysmic event called Singularity. Hawking and Musk say ‘singularity’ could only be decades away and what will happen is that the network of world computers and Ai will have a kind of explosion of machine intelligence. By then, most of the world’s food distribution, banking and other vital systems will all be conducted through that network. So the explosion will cause all of the systems to malfunction and that will bring the world to its knees. Now you might be ready to dismiss this as something fanciful. Just as a reminder, this is not a couple of crackpot scientists talking. These two guys are highly intelligent men who the world takes very seriously. In fact, in an interview with the BBC, Hawking went further. He said the development of full Artificial Intelligence would spell the end of the human race. He called for all research into Ai to be aborted immediately, which is kind of ironic coming from someone who relies on Artificial Intelligence to communicate.

Hawking suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). For decades he has been scrolling a cursor through the alphabet, laboriously building words so that he can communicate through twitching his cheek. He was asked to express his thoughts on a recent revamp of his computer-assisted speech system by the computer company, Intel, and machine-learning software company, Swiftkey. Hawking is working with Intel to integrate new features such as predictive text with his existing suite of sensors to help him “speak” through a voice synthesiser. The astrophysicist has embraced a wide range of technologies in his quest to communicate and research.

But it was the ability of the software to “learn” and “predict” his preference in words that completely spooked him. He says while such primitive forms of artificial intelligence have proven to be very useful, he fears the consequences of creating something smarter than a human being. It could take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, would be superseded because they couldn’t compete.

Elon Musk thinks exactly the same way and his language is even more colourful than Hawking. Musk says ‘summoning the demon’ of self-learning, which is what he calls artificial intelligence, would ‘potentially be more dangerous’ than nuclear weapons.

“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence, Musk said. “If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that … with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like yeah he’s sure he can control the demon. (but it) didn’t work out.”

Ai definitely has a lot of people talking. It has caused the formation of ethics panels and UN investigations, university reviews and consumer protection reports. They are saying it is a potential threat but not a clear and present danger.

Supporters of Artificial Intelligence are adamant it will benefit mankind but thinking machines are already rapidly displacing humans in the workforce: Sleepless, never tiring, performing repetitive but complex tasks in an indefatigable manner. If you are in business and don’t think beyond the size of your wallet, you’d have to be asking yourself where is the downside?

Spring Has Not Yet Sprung

It seems I‘ve been harboring under an illusion every since I can remember.

You see in my part of the world, commonly known as the Southern Hemisphere, today is the first of September. It’s a day I pretty much look forward to every year. Why you might ask?

By my calculation (and I don’t need a Groundhog or any other critter to tell me) today heralds the first day of Spring. Right? Wrong.

In fact it’s so, so wrong. You see technically speaking Spring has not even begun to sprung if you get my meaning. It’s all to do with the astronomical calendar.

In the true sense of the word, Spring begins on or around the 21st of September. Apparently the date varies by a day or so each year. This is known as the Spring Equinox. It is the beginning of when the southern hemisphere starts to receive more sun than the northern hemisphere.

There is a good scientific explanation for why this occurs as it does. It has everything to do with the 23.5 degree tilt of the earth’s axis. Don’t ask me to give you further and better particulars. Science was never my subject at school.

The reality is, astronomically speaking, it’s not actually spring yet.

But not everyone who is in a position to know is prepared to go with the science. Australia’s austere, if not occasionally inaccurate Bureau of Meteorology, is sticking to its guns and backing the 1st of September.

The Bureau says it’s easier for everybody if spring begins on the first day of the month from a record keeping point of view. They figure, quite rightly, that if you started making the seasons start on the 21st of the month it would only succeed in confusing people. So all the seasons start on the first of the month and nobody gets confused

But today I am a little confused. Like I said I have always thought the 1st of September is the first day of Spring. And if you were living in my patch today you would think exactly the same way. The sun is shining, it’s nice and warm and there’s every reason to be happy because from now on the weather’s only going to get warmer.

But if I was to be completely objective there is quite a bit of merit in the seasons beginning on the 21st of the month. I’m sure people who live in the northern hemisphere will struggle to get their heads around this but our hottest months are December, January and February. The month of March, normally signifies the start of our fall or autumn. But according to the record keepers March is almost identical to December in terms of average maximum temperatures. In fact if there is a difference it is only by half a degree.

Now before you start accusing me of banging on about nothing. Consider this. People in the Northern Hemisphere who think they have officially seen the last day of summer haven’t. In fact there are at least another three weeks before you can kiss Summer goodbye. There. I’ve made your day.



They’re Coming

Just when you thought you had enough to worry about with the effect of climate change on the environment, here’s something that’s bound to give you nightmares.

If you are like me and think spiders are already big enough and scary enough, then you’d better brace yourself. They are getting even bigger.

In Australia, where I live, we have some of the biggest and nastiest critters imaginable. For example we are home to the world’s most poisonous snake, the inland Taipan. Luckily it lives far, far, away from civilisation. Its venom is so toxic, it makes a death adder look like a wimp in comparison.

So the idea that our spiders might be growing even bigger is not exactly good news. Apparently this trend is happening the world over.

The cause of this has something to do with our cities becoming busier and more populated. Researchers have been examining how your everyday garden spider, like the harmless Golden Orb Weaver, is suddenly growing exponentially.

One species of this type of spider has been gaining weight almost at the same time as the city grows. Researchers say the further they are away from bush land and the more concrete there is with a corresponding reduction in leaf litter, the bigger the spider. And we are talking significant weight gain. For example, spiders found in a park away from the city had an average mass of 0.5 grams. But those in an inner city park averaged 1.6 grams or three times the size. Eeek.

Scientists are calling it the urban heat island effect and prey availability. Spiders are very sensitive to temperature. If it’s warmer they grow bigger. And urbanization has been a big benefit. The food or prey the spider eats tend to do well in small fragments of bush land like urban parks. And they do even better if there is lighting at night. So the spiders have more to eat so they can put more energy into growing bigger.

Income also plays a big part. Scientists found that wealthier areas in the city tend to have the largest spiders. The reason for this is less clear. But it might be because they have more parks and more concrete that heats up readily. Now the really bad news is that the trend is across the board. So poisonous spiders like the Australian Redback are also growing bigger. Global warming will encourage spiders to get bigger but they don’t like the really, really hot weather.

All of this has been pretty surprising to the scientific community. They expected that the opposite would be true. An increase in heat usually means an increase in the rate of development. It also means metabolic function speeds up so they mature early at a smaller size. But that is not what is happening.

The scientists do say the relationship between heat and body size is complicated. The heat might be allowing the spiders to hatch earlier giving them a longer growing season.

In any case, a healthy spider population apparently should be celebrated. They eat pests and provide food for birds. Spiders in urban areas should be encouraged. Sure. Anywhere except my backyard.


The World Is Really Flat

Forget about global warming. What we should all be worried about is global cooling.

So where did that ‘genius’ idea originate? Would you believe from a senior economic advisor to the Australian Government.

Yes I am being serious. Maurice Newman is the Government’s chief economic advisor. In fact he chair’s the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council.

Newman says there is “ evidence that the world is set for a period of cooling, rather than warming, leading to significant geopolitical problems because of a lack of preparedness.

He also warned “ Australia is ill prepared for global cooling owing to widespread “warming propaganda.”

In an opinion piece for a major national daily newspaper, Mr Newman wrote: “What if the warmth the world has enjoyed for the past 50 years is the result of solar activity, not man-made CO2?

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its acolytes pay scant attention to any science, however strong the empirical evidence, that may relegate human causes to a lesser status.”

Newman says money spent on studying climate change has been “to largely preordain scientific conclusions”. He says this has caused “serious damage on economies and diminished the west’s standing and effectiveness in world affairs”.

Newman claims scientists discovered a rapid drop in solar activity, with a “global warming pause” occurring in the past 18 years.

“But the political establishment is deaf to this,” he says. “Having put all our eggs in one basket and having made science a religion, it bravely persists with its global warming narrative, ignoring at its peril and ours, the clear warnings being given by mother-nature.

“If the world does indeed move into a cooling period, its citizens are ill-prepared.”

Newman, who has no scientific background, has repeatedly attacked mainstream climate science over the past year, claiming that Australia has become “hostage to climate change madness” and dismissing the overwhelming evidence of warming caused by carbon emissions. He is also strongly critical of investment in renewable energy.

Needless to say there are a lot of people including a significant number of climate scientists itching to take on Maurice Newman. They are accusing him of being misguided and “arrogant” for dismissing well-established evidence of warming in favour of a theory of global cooling

“There’s nothing credible to what he says”, according to Professor Mathew England from the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. “I can’t believe this stuff about cosmic rays is being raised again after it has been discredited

Professor England’s work has demonstrated how strong Pacific winds are pushing surface heat underwater, contributing to the slowdown, or “pause”, in the rise of global temperatures.

“The amount of greenhouses gases we are pumping into the atmosphere means that the solar minimum is just a blip in the next few decades,” he says. “The idea that solar cycles can override climate change driven by greenhouse gases is fanciful.

“Saying we aren’t prepared for global cooling is like saying we aren’t prepared for an alien invasion. There is no credible scientist saying this is on the horizon.

“I think he’s arrogant to think he knows the answer to climate physics when he hasn’t studied it.”

Another climate specialist Professor Steve Sherwood says he isn’t sure how to respond to Newman, given the number of errors in his article.

“The sun doesn’t have as much influence on the climate as we previously thought, the latest estimates are that it explains only 5% of the warming over the last 150 years,” he said.

“We have been in a solar minimum and no one really knows what the sun will do next. I don’t think anyone is saying that the sun will compete with greenhouses gases when it comes to warming the planet.

“What he says may be entertaining but it’s also scary because it’s so out there. It’s so prominent that it’s concerning.”

Despite the warming “pause” that Newman repeatedly refers to, 13 of the 14 warmest years occurred in the 21st century.

2001 to 2010 was the warmest decade on record, while each of the past three decades were warmer than the previous one.

According to the experts, the world has warmed by about 1C over the past century and will get even warmer – by between 0.3C and 4.8C – by 2100, based largely on the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

In fact climate scientists in Australia are clinging to the vain hope that they might be able to meet with Maurice Newman to explain the facts.

The head of Australia’s Climate Council sees the Newman remarks as deeply disturbing.

“ Maurice Newman is a business adviser to the prime minister; you’d expect him to be representing the interests of the business community.

“But what he’s saying fundamentally misrepresents the interests of business, which faces a huge risk, along with the rest of us, from climate change. He’s using his position for a personal crusade in what, I think, is a serious dereliction of duty.”

The former head of BP Australasia, granted a company not noted for its commitment to the environment, had this to say about the Newman opinions:

“Newman holds views that are out of step with those held by serious energy businesses globally and mainstream business in general.

“His views are scientifically wrong and completely ignore the economic and business risks that climate change presents. It is worrying that he is providing this sort of ill-informed advice on energy policy and climate risk to the highest levels of government.”

The next thing the Australian Government will be saying is that the world is really flat. But I don’t want to say it too loudly. It might give them ideas.