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10 Things We Learned From Stephen Hawking’s AMA

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Stephen Hawking is a busy guy. In just the past few months he has launched a $100 million initiative to hunt for alien life, fought to impose a ban on AI weapons, and shared the secret to escaping a black hole. In the middle of all that, he somehow managed to find time to conduct his first-ever Reddit AMA.

Unlike traditional AMAs, Hawking fans had to wait two months for his responses as the world-famous physicist answered questions at his own pace. Now his replies are finally up, and we know a little more about Hawking’s stance on artificial intelligence, pop culture and the universe’s greatest mystery: women. 

1. HE THINKS AI IS RISKY, NOT EVIL.

When one participant brought up his gripes with what he calls “The Terminator Conversation,” or the media-perpetuated belief that artificial intelligence may one day become evil, Hawking agreed that that’s not necessarily what we should be looking out for. "The real risk with AI isn’t malice, but competence,” he said. “You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice, but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants.” Sounds like a good plan. 

2. HE'S A ROD STEWART FAN.

When asked about his favorite song, Hawking responded that it's the Rod Stewart love ballad "Have I Told You Lately."

3. HE LIKES THE BIG BANG THEORY.

This is the answer he gave when asked about the last thing he saw online that he found hilarious. 

4. HE BELIEVES AI COULD SURPASS HUMAN INTELLIGENCE.

In response to one Redditor’s point that some people may think it impossible for a creature (or machine) to surpass the intelligence of its creator, Hawking begged to differ. “We evolved to be smarter than our ape-like ancestors and Einstein was smarter than his parents,” he said, “If [AI becomes better than humans at AI design], we may face an intelligence explosion that ultimately results in machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.” Somehow, this statement feels even more dismal than the ant comparison. 

5. WOMEN ARE THE MYSTERY HE FINDS MOST INTRIGUING.

Even though he has dedicated his life to exploring the mysteries of the universe, Hawking says his personal assistant reminds him that women should remain a mystery.

6. AUTOMATION COULD IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF LIFE, OR NOT SO MUCH.

When someone brought up the looming possibility of technological unemployment due to increased automation, Hawking posited this could go one of two ways: “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed,” he explained. "Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth distribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option." 

7. HIS FAVORITE FILM IS JULES AND JIM.

On a lighter note, Hawking is apparently a fan of French New Wave cinema. 

8. HE DOESN’T KNOW WHEN TO EXPECT HUMAN-LEVEL AI.

If you're wondering when to expect machines to catch up to human intelligence, Hawking admits there’s no way of knowing for sure. “There’s no consensus among AI researchers about how long it will take to build human-level AI and beyond,” he said, "so please don’t trust anyone who claims to know for sure that it will happen in your lifetime or that it won’t happen in your lifetime."

9. HE THINKS AI COULD DEVELOP THE WILL TO SURVIVE.

Even though AI robots wouldn’t have evolved like organic creatures, Hawking says an intelligent machine with a programmed goal could develop the drive to “survive” in order to help it accomplish that goal. “Surviving and having more resources will increase its chances of accomplishing that other goal. This can cause problems for humans whose resources get taken away."

10. HE DOESN’T REMEMBER WATCHING WAYNE’S WORLD 2.

One participant recounted a memory he has from the 1990s of watching Wayne’s World 2 in a video rental store when Stephen Hawking’s nurse wheeled him up in front of the television to watch alongside him. When asked if he recalled watching the movie, Hawking responded with an all-caps “NO.”

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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Chloe Efforn
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Animals
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.

1. ELVIS

Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.

2. AND 3. TICH AND SAM

He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.

5. AND 6. MIMI AND BABAGHI

John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.

7. JESUS

As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

8. AND 9. MAJOR AND MINOR

In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.

10. AND 11. SALT AND PEPPER

John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.

12. AND 13. GERTRUDE AND ALICE

John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.

14., 15. AND 16. MISHA, SASHA, AND CHARO

In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.

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