Artificial intelligence could sideline and "destroy" its human creators if engineers cannot get a grip on the ethics behind it, Stephen Hawking has warned.
Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, the theoretical physicist said AI has the potential to be the best or worst thing humanity has ever seen and the scary reality is we just don't know which yet.
"We cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it," he said.
The Cambridge professor said while AI could be hugely beneficial for reducing poverty, disease and restoring the natural environment, it's impossible to predict "what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI".
"AI could be the worst invention of the history of our civilization, that brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many."
"AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us. In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity."
Addressing the crowd of engineers and tech workers at the "vanguard" of AI development, Hawking warned they needed to focus on maximizing benefits for society rather than pure capability.
"We need to employ effective management in all areas of its development," he said. "We stand on a threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting, if precarious place to be and you are the pioneers."
The address set the scene for three days of talks between high-profile tech, business and government leaders grappling with ethical implications of everything from self-driving cars to sex dolls.
Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrove called tech's current crossroads the "kind of inflection point that happens once in several lifetimes." High-profile speakers including United Nations Secretary General Antonito Guterres and European Union's commissioner for Competition Margarethe Vestager also took the stage on Monday and joined calls for an ethical approach that reduces inequality.
Kernel founder Bryan Johnson, who has plowed $100 million into his company to "hack the human brain," agrees we're on the threshold of the "most consequential revolution in the history of the human race."
"The future is like a Category 5 hurricane that's going to bear down on us with so much force the single greatest thing we can do as a species is work on our adaptability to change," he said.
The European Union's competition commissioner Vestager, who has fined Apple $19 billion over unpaid taxes in Ireland and Google $3.6 billion for disadvantaging others with its algorithm, said the main challenge for governments is to develop the tools to keep up with the rapid pace of change.
"We have to take our democracy back and renew it, because society is about people and not about technology," she said. "You cannot just say what happens in the black box stays in the black box."