Stephen Hawking
Professor Stephen Hawking has warned that thinking machines could spell the end of the human raceReuters

Luminaries such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been nominated for the "Luddite of the year" award by a US think tank for warning against the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI).

The Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) labelled the trio "alarmists" for raising fears that humans could lose control of AI in the not-too-distant future, thus creating a threat to our very existence.

Luddites were 19th century English textile workers who destroyed machinery in cotton and woollen mills, which they believed posed a threat to their jobs. The term is now used to describe those who are opposed to new technologies.

Professor Hawking, one of the world's leading and most respected scientists, warned last year that the development of thinking machines could "spell the end of the human race". "It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate," he told the BBC in December 2014.

"Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete and would be superseded."

Microsoft founder Gates has also cautioned of the dangers of AI, while Tesla Motors CEO Musk has stated that super-intelligent machines could pose a greater threat than nuclear weapons.

'Fear-mongering'

"Most of us are rightly amazed at AI applications like IBM's Watson, our Nest thermostat that learns, and other learning devices," ITIF said on 21 December.

"But to say that these devices and systems will be smart enough to take over the world is to misunderstand what AI is and where it stands today.

2001 A Space Odyssey HAL 9000
The HAL 9000 supercomputer from Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space OdysseyMGM

"Whether such systems will ever develop full autonomy is a debatable question, but what should not be debatable is that this possible future is a long, long way off, and it is therefore premature to be worrying about 'Skynet' becoming self-aware."

The think tank said groundless fear-mongering over AI was unhelpful, as the technology promises "enormous benefits to society".

"Raising such sci-fi doomsday scenarios just makes it harder for the public, policymakers and scientists to support more funding for AI research," it added.

Other nominees on the list include advocates seeking a ban on autonomous weapons and those that seek to restrict the sale of genetically-modified food. The winner of the prize will be decided by a public vote.

Nominees for Luddite Awards:

  • Alarmists tout an artificial intelligence apocalypse
  • Advocates seek a ban on "killer robots"
  • States limit automatic license plate readers
  • Europe, China, and others choose taxi drivers over car-sharing passengers
  • Paper industry opposes e-labeling
  • California's governor vetoes RFID in driver's licenses
  • Wyoming outlaws citizen science
  • Federal Communications Commission limits broadband innovation
  • Center for Food Safety fights genetically improved food
  • Ohio and others ban red light cameras