Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees has said he believes the world is facing an “inorganic post-human era” where robots will surpass people.
He has estimated that in the next 25 years the intelligence of robots will rival and surpass that of humans.
Sir Martin, who is one of the world’s most eminent astronomers, says that while Earth has existed for 45 million centuries, this century is special.
Over nearly all of Earth’s history, threats have come from nature, but from now on, the worst dangers come from us – and specifically artificial intelligence.
He says that by any definition of ‘thinking’, the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will, in the far future, be swamped by the intelligence of AI.
‘There are chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of organic brains,’ wrote Sir Rees, in an opinion piece for the Telegraph.
‘Maybe humans are close to these limits already.
‘But there are no such constraints on silicon-based computers.
‘For these, the potential for further development could be as dramatic as the evolution from monocellular organisms to humans.’
The fact that AI isn’t constrained by Earth’s biosphere, makes it an even deadlier threat.
‘Interplanetary and interstellar space will be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction,’ said the Astronomer Royal.
And the pace of innovation in the field is moving rapidly.
Sir Rees highlights progress Deep Mind, a London company owned by Google, who recently create a machine that could figure out the rules in old Atari games without human interventions.
The 72-year-old is also concerned by the safety of driverless cars, and their ability to discriminate between objects on the road.
‘And what about the military use of autonomous drones?,’ he asks.
‘Can they be trusted to seek out a targeted individual and decide whether to deploy their weapon?’
Sir Rees suggests that super-intelligent robots could be the last invention that humans ever make.
Once machines have overtaken human capabilities, they could design and assemble a new generation of even more powerful machines.
‘In the far future, it won’t be the minds of humans, but those of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos,’ said Sir Rees.
‘And it will be the actions of autonomous machines that will most drastically change our world, and perhaps what lies beyond.’
Sir Rees’ concerns were last week echoed by Stephen Hawking who said that rather than being concerned about who controls AI, we should be worried if AI can be controlled at all.
His comments were made today at the Zeitgeist 2015 conference in London, and follows a previous warning that artificial intelligence could spell the end for humanity.
Earlier this year, Hawking signed an open letter with Elon Musk arguing AI development should not go on uncontrolled.
The letter said that without safeguards on intelligent machines, mankind could be heading for a dark future.
In November, Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind Space-X and Tesla, warned that the risk of ‘something seriously dangerous happening’ as a result of machines with artificial intelligence, could be in as few as five years.
He has previously linked the development of autonomous, thinking machines, to ‘summoning the demon’.