To Boldly Transcend All Limits: The Visionary Legacy of Stephen Hawking

Hawking was not only a top scientist, but also a great science writer and a visionary thinker interested in space exploration and colonization, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the long-term future of our species.

Giulio Prisco

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Giulio Prisco is a futurist, theoretical physicist, and computer scientist. He writes about science, technology, and the future. He's also a cofounder of Space Cooperative.

Stephen Hawking was one of the leading theoretical physicists and cosmologists of our time. He was never awarded a Nobel Prize because his research on the quantum physics and thermodynamics of black holes was too far ahead of the possibility of experimental verification.

It’s worth noting, however, that “Hawking radiation” from artificial black hole analogues has been recently observed in the laboratory, and it seems plausible that further research on artificial black holes could have won Hawking a Nobel Prize for his pioneering theoretical studies. We’ll never know, because the Nobel Prize is only awarded to living scientists.

Hawking died today, at 76.

To me and to many other futurists, Hawking was—is—a hero who represents the indomable human spirit. In the face of a cruel disease that confined him to a wheelchair for most of his adult life, progressively depriving him of his abilities, Hawking didn’t give up. He married twice, and fathered three children. Unable to write and speak, he used futuristic high-tech interface devices to communicate.

Hawking was not only a top scientist, but also a great science writer and a visionary thinker interested in space exploration and colonization, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and the long-term future of our species. In his philosophical speculations, as in his personal life, Hawking acknowledged no limits.

“I believe what makes us unique is transcending our limits,” said Hawking in 2016, on the 55th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering space flight, announcing the Breakthrough Starshot initiative to send the first robotic probe to the stars. “Nature pins us to the ground. But I just flew to America. Nature forbids me from speaking. But here I am.”

Launched by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, Breakthrough Starshot is a $100 million program to develop technologies for small robotic nanoprobes and light beams with the power to accelerate the probes to 20 percent of the speed of light—fast enough to reach the nearest star system within a generation. Hawking was on the Board of Breakthrough Starshot with Milner and Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars,” added Hawking. “But now we can transcend it. With light beams, lightsails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation. Today, we commit to this next great leap into the cosmos. Because we are human. And our nature is to fly.”

Speaking at a 2017 science festival, Hawking called for re-igniting and accelerating the space program to "elevate humanity" and give people a sense of purpose. "I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth," he said. “We need to rekindle the excitement of the early days of space travel in the sixties. If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before.”

Writing on The Independent with Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, Hawking observed that AI research is advancing fast and could produce machines smarter than humans. “[There] are no fundamental limits to what can be achieved,” the scientists stated. “[There] is no physical law precluding particles from being organised in ways that perform even more advanced computations than the arrangements of particles in human brains.”

The scientists cautioned against reckless development of AI technology, which would pose important risks such as autonomous weapons and technological unemployment. In the long term, we might not be able to control advanced AIs at all.

Perhaps, Hawking thought, humanity will be eventually replaced by thinking machines. “These machines would be a new form of life, based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules,” he said. “They could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.”

But there’s another, more appealing possibility: Our descendants could find ways to copy human minds to advanced computers, a still hypothetical process known as mind uploading, and merge with thinking machines. “It's theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer and so provide a form of life after death,” said Hawking. "However, this is way beyond our present capabilities."

It’s worth noting that an important advance announced yesterday, the day before Hawking’s death, could allow people alive today to preserve their brain until mind uploading capabilities are developed. Perhaps some readers will achieve Hawking’s dream, and go to the stars as electronic minds.