Stephen Hawking passed away on March 14 of this year, a bright, shining star in the firmament of the brilliant. Like all truly intelligent scientists – Newton, Einstein, Darwin – Hawking left plenty of room for God in his thinking. Only the drooling Neanderthals of the intelligentsia, the Richard Dawkins and the Stephen Frys of this world who haven’t thought deeply about anything save breakfast are committed atheists. All those who are truly intelligent recognize the limits of scientific observation and theory and understand fully that beyond the ‘event horizons’ of the universe lies nothing but speculation.

Hawking certainly knew this, and at one pivotal moment in his landmark A Brief History of Time acknowledges that all of his speculation is merely an attempt to rationalize what is known about the universe into a coherent theory that is not dependent on the presence of God. He goes further. He acknowledges that the existence of God is a much better explanation for what is known and observed than anything he puts forward. Such intellectual open-mindedness is the hallmark of genius.

Hawking was equally frank about the dangers posed by the development of artificial intelligence or AI. He once remarked that, “Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it. Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

Hawking was himself the beneficiary of the intelligent machines he warned us about. Unable to speak for the last thirty years, Hawking was entirely dependent on machines to move or even speak. Nothing, however, was able to limit his capacity to think. He was the director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge at the time of his death and pushed the boundaries of what we know about the universe.

But perhaps his greatest gift to mankind was his indomitable spirit. Diagnosed with ALS at 21, Hawking was given two years to live. He lived another 55 and altered perceptions not only of the physical universe, but of the remarkable human capacity for endurance in the face of an overwhelming disability. He will be missed.

 

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