Stephen Hawking is in the news again. He has been congratulating NASA’s New Horizons team on the successful flyby of Pluto, which produced some spectacular images, while simultaneously warning of us of the dangers of science to the future of human race, particularly in the matter of Artificial Intelligence.

To adapt a gag from C.P. Snow’s novel “The Light and the Dark,” Hawking may be seeking to have the last word, but he did not say the first. Warnings about machines that can think for themselves go back at least to Karel Čapek’s 1920 science fiction novel Rossum’s Universal Robots, where the thinking machines (actually artificial organic constructions) eventually take over and destroy their human creators. A not dissimilar scenario with regard to modern developments was carefully analyzed by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom in his 2014 book Superintelligencea book that should be read by everyone who is concerned with these issues (see my Mini Story 78: “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”).

There is another connection with regard to the flyby of Pluto, and the ongoing speculation as to what the patterns on its surface might mean (including comparisons with the face of Walt Disney’s Pluto). Here I am irresistibly reminded of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction story Jokester ( Asimov describes a scenario where computers have become so intelligent that it takes people of genius stature to ask them meaningful questions. One such “grandmaster” is discovered telling jokes to a computer. He is initially thought to be going mad, but it turns out that his joke-telling has a point when asks the computer “Where did the jokes come from?” The computer answers that they can only have been implanted by an alien intelligence as some sort of probe of the human psyche, just as different chemicals might be spotted on to the surface of a Petri dish covered with microorganisms so as to observe their response.

That’s scary enough, but then the grandmaster asks the computer a second question “What will happen if even one person becomes aware of this fact?” The answer is that the probe will have lost its point, and will be removed, to be replaced by something else. And there the proponents of the story are left, unable to think of a single joke, and waiting, waiting for whatever is coming to replace the sense of humour.

Do you think that this is irrelevant to the images of Pluto? Look again, and you will see that it resembles a giant Petri dish, perhaps placed there by an alien intelligence to probe us and our solar system. But what is going to happen now that we know?

IMAGE: NASA image of Pluto, side-by-side with image of Petri dish covered with patches of Penicillium mould.

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