Stephen Hawking has warned China that the rise of powerful artificial intelligence could be "either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity" as the country's technology companies pour resources into competing with Western rivals in a race to dominate the field.
"We should do all we can to ensure that its [AI's] future development benefits us and our environment," said Professor Hawking.
The world-renowned British physicist made a video appearance in China on Thursday to make the opening speech at the 2017 Global Mobile Internet Conference Beijing, a major annual event attended by thousands of people working in the country's booming tech industry.
Hawking acknowledges that AI brings positive benefits to humans, especially in its potential to tackle diseases and poverty, and may even be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by industrialisation.
But he also posed a big question to China: will AI ultimately help the human race, or is it conceivable that it could destroy it?
"I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer," he said, adding that AI will be able to redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate.
"Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and could be superseded by AI."
Hawking, who is a prominent critic of making unchecked advances in AI in the Western world, said research must be done in order to avoid potential pitfalls while reaping the benefit of AI.
Hawking's speech comes amid intensified competition among Chinese companies. They have been investing heavily in developing AI technology and hiring talent from Silicon Valley in a bid to get ahead in the global race.
AI is now at the centre of myriad real world applications, from facial recognition software and cybersecurity to more futuristic technologies like autonomous self-driving vehicles.
Internet giant Baidu, which operates China's dominant internet search engine, has 1300 staff in its AI division and is gearing up to commercialise autonomous driving cars by 2020.
Alibaba Group, owner of the South China Morning Post, has an AI programme that helps identify counterfeit products sold on the world's largest online shopping platforms.
Lee Kai-fu, the former greater China president of Google, and founder of the venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures, said the concern raised by Hawking that advanced AI programmes will be capable of overcoming humans at all levels is not an outcome that can be concluded from today's scientific knowledge.
"What we do need to be concerned about is companies which have strong AI power and massive data using their skills and resources in an evil way, and what kind of education we can provide when the work currently done by humans is largely displaced by AI," said Lee, whose firm is one of the companies betting big on AI development in China.
According to recent research by UBS, AI could produce economic value of between US$1.8 trillion and US$3 trillion a year by 2030 in Asia─by introducing new product services and categories, cost savings arising from better products, lower overall prices and improvements in lifestyles.
However, the widespread adoption of AI could put up to 50 million jobs in Asia at risk in another 15 to 20 years, the research found.
- This article appeared in the South China Morning Post