Stephen Hawking was a busy guy. In the span of a few months, he launched a $100 million initiative to hunt for alien life, fought to impose a ban on AI weapons, and shared the secret to escaping a black hole. In the middle of all that, he somehow managed to find time to conduct his first-ever Reddit AMA in 2015.
Unlike traditional AMAs, Hawking fans had to wait two months for his responses as the world-famous physicist answered questions at his own pace. Here's what they learned about Hawking’s stance on artificial intelligence, pop culture, the universe’s greatest mystery, and more.
1. HE THOUGHT AI WAS RISKY, NOT EVIL.
When one participant brought up his gripes with what he calls “The Terminator Conversation,” or the media-perpetuated belief that artificial intelligence may one day become evil, Hawking agreed that that’s not necessarily what we should be looking out for. "The real risk with AI isn’t malice, but competence,” he said. “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.” Sounds like a good plan.
2. HE WAS A ROD STEWART FAN.
When asked about his favorite song, Hawking responded that it's the Rod Stewart love ballad "Have I Told You Lately."
3. HE LIKED THE BIG BANG THEORY.
This is the answer he gave when asked about the last thing he saw online that he found hilarious.
4. HE BELIEVED AI COULD SURPASS HUMAN INTELLIGENCE.
In response to one Redditor’s point that some people may think it impossible for a creature (or machine) to surpass the intelligence of its creator, Hawking begged to differ. “We evolved to be smarter than our ape-like ancestors and Einstein was smarter than his parents,” he said, “If [AI becomes better than humans at AI design], we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.” Somehow, this statement feels even more dismal than the ant comparison.
5. WOMEN WERE THE MYSTERY HE FOUND MOST INTRIGUING.
Even though he dedicated his life to exploring the mysteries of the universe, Hawking said his personal assistant reminded him that women should remain a mystery.
6. AUTOMATION COULD IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF LIFE, OR NOT SO MUCH.
When someone brought up the looming possibility of technological unemployment due to increased automation, Hawking posited this could go one of two ways: “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,” he explained. "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 distribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option."
7. HIS FAVORITE FILM WAS JULES AND JIM.
On a lighter note, Hawking was apparently a fan of French New Wave cinema.
8. HE DIDN’T KNOW WHEN TO EXPECT HUMAN-LEVEL AI.
If you're wondering when to expect machines to catch up to human intelligence, Hawking admitted there’s no way of knowing for sure. “There’s no consensus among AI researchers about how long it will take to build human-level AI and beyond,” he said, "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."
9. HE THOUGHT AI COULD DEVELOP THE WILL TO SURVIVE.
Even though AI robots wouldn’t have evolved like organic creatures, Hawking said an intelligent machine with a programmed goal could develop the drive to “survive” in order to help it accomplish that goal. “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."
10. HE DIDN’T REMEMBER WATCHING WAYNE’S WORLD 2.
One participant recounted a memory he has from the 1990s of watching Wayne’s World 2 in a video rental store when Stephen Hawking’s nurse wheeled him up in front of the television to watch alongside him. When asked if he recalled watching the movie, Hawking responded with an all-caps “NO.”