Fact Check

Did Stephen Hawking Warn Artificial Intelligence Could Spell the End of the Human Race?

Amid alarms over rapid advances made by artificial intelligence (AI), an old warning from physicist Stephen Hawking resurfaced in 2023.

Published May 3, 2023

 (Image Via Sion Touhig/Getty Images)
Image Via Image Via Sion Touhig/Getty Images
Claim:
In 2014, physicist Stephen Hawking warned that development of artificial intelligence (AI) could mean the "end of the human race."

On May 1, 2023, the New York Post ran a story saying that British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking had warned that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) could mean "the end of the human race." 

Hawking, who died in 2018, had indeed said so in an interview with the BBC in 2014.

"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," Hawking said during the interview. "Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate."

Another story, from CNBC in 2017, relayed a similar warning about AI from the physicist. It came from Hawking's speech at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, according to CNBC. Hawking reportedly said:

Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

Such warnings became more common in 2023. In March, tech leaders, scientists, and entrepreneurs warned about the dangers posed by AI creations, like ChatGPT, to humanity. 

"AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity, as shown by extensive research and acknowledged by top AI labs," they wrote in an open letter published by the Future of Life Institute, a nonprofit. The letter garnered over 27,500 signatures as of this writing in early May 2023. Among the signatories were CEO of SpaceX, Tesla, and Twitter Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp. 

In addition, Snopes and other fact-checking organizations noted a dramatic uptick in misinformation conveyed on social media via AI-generated content in 2022 and 2023. 

Then, on May 2, long-time researcher at Google, Geoffrey Hinton, quit the technology behemoth to sound the alarm about AI products. Hinton, known as "Godfather of AI," told MIT Technology Review that chatbots like GPT-4 – that OpenAI, an AI lab –  "are on track to be a lot smarter than he thought they'd be." 

Given that Hawking was indeed documented as warning about the potential for AI to "spell the end of the human race," we rate this quote as correctly attributed to him.

Sources

"Geoffrey Hinton Tells Us Why He's Now Scared of the Tech He Helped Build." MIT Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/05/02/1072528/geoffrey-hinton-google-why-scared-ai/. Accessed 3 May 2023.

"'Godfather of AI' Leaves Google, Warns of Tech's Dangers." AP NEWS, 2 May 2023, https://apnews.com/article/ai-godfather-google-geoffery-hinton-fa98c6a6fddab1d7c27560f6fcbad0ad.

"Pause Giant AI Experiments: An Open Letter." Future of Life Institute, https://futureoflife.org/open-letter/pause-giant-ai-experiments/. Accessed 3 May 2023.

Stephen Hawking Says AI Could Be "worst Event" in Civilization. 6 Nov. 2017, https://web.archive.org/web/20171106191334/https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/06/stephen-hawking-ai-could-be-worst-event-in-civilization.html.

Stephen Hawking Warned AI Could Mean the "End of the Human Race." 3 May 2023, https://web.archive.org/web/20230503162420/https://nypost.com/2023/05/01/stephen-hawking-warned-ai-could-mean-the-end-of-the-human-race/.

"Stephen Hawking Warns Artificial Intelligence Could End Mankind." BBC News, 2 Dec. 2014. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540.

Damakant Jayshi is a former writer for Snopes.