By Maggie Millar
Did anyone hear the latest from Stephen Hawking?
According to the world’s most famous cosmologist, we should fear for the future of mankind because robots will eventually outsmart us.
He warned: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.
“It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate.
“Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”
Woah! That’s heavy stuff and even more doom-laden than Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen’s attempt at creating an artificial and unintelligent Christmas theme-park (the inspired creation of smoking elves proved the end of that Magical Journey).
But apocalyptic visions aside, and some AI experts have dismissed Hawking’s conclusion, the marching advancement of science is staggering.
When children rip open the box on the latest iPad on Christmas morning, they hold in their hands a computer way more powerful than anything used to put man on the moon in 1969. (For those interested, NASA’s guidance machine had 64kb of memory - the same as a pocket calculator.)
Also this month it was revealed that Anne Wojcicki (wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin) has introduced a cheap DIY at home genetic test kit, called 23andMe which I’m considering asking for as an alternative Christmas present.
It’s proving controversial (been banned in the US), but its implications for people (and insurance companies) are ground-breaking.
Just spit in a tube, send it through the post with a cheque for £125 to a lab in the Netherlands, and you’ll get a online report giving you an insight into your genetic ancestry and (this is the scary bit) flags up any predisposition to a raft of genetically-linked conditions such as Alzheimers or Parkinsons.
The test even tells you if you are prone to developing flushed cheeks after drinking alcohol (alternatively, just look in the mirror) and, this bit I find bizarrely compelling, your earwax type. How many types of earwax are there, I wonder?
GPs will be shuddering at the thought of every hypochondriac clutching their report and demanding extra tests on a struggling NHS.
But, notwithstanding practicalities and ethics, when you consider that less than 50 years ago researchers at St Andrews University were experimenting with fruit flies in a bid to understand the complexities of DNA, we’ve come a long way in a short time.
An amateur astronomer discussing technology on radio recently remarked that a child’s toy telescope is far more powerful than that used by Galileo to prove the sun revolved around the earth.
It’s incredible to think that all you need is a £30 telescope from Argos and you have the whole universe at your fingertips; there from time immemorial.
Sure enough, when it comes to the biggest questions of all, science still hasn’t come up with the definitive answers.
But it fuels our wonder.