• Physicist Stephen Hawking said the emergence of artificial intelligence could be the "worst event in the history of our civilization."
  • He urged creators of AI to "employ best practice and effective management."
  • Hawking is among a number of voices including Elon Musk who have warned about the dangers of AI.

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) could be the "worst event in the history of our civilization" unless society finds a way to control its development, high-profile physicist Stephen Hawking said Monday.

He made the comments during a talk at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in which he said, "computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it."

Hawking talked up the potential of AI to help undo damage done to the natural world, or eradicate poverty and disease, with every aspect of society being "transformed."

But he admitted the future was uncertain.

"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 said during the speech.

"Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy."

Hawking explained that to avoid this potential reality, creators of AI need to "employ best practice and effective management."

The scientist highlighted some of the legislative work being carried out in Europe, particularly proposals put forward by lawmakers earlier this year to establish new rules around AI and robotics. Members of the European Parliament said European Union-wide rules were needed on the matter.

Such developments are giving Hawking hope.

"I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the good of the world. That it can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management, and prepare for its consequences well in advance," Hawking said.

It's not the first time the British physicist has warned on the dangers of AI. And he joins a chorus of other major voices in science and technology to speak about their concerns. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently said that AI could cause a third world war, and even proposed that humans must merge with machines in order to remain relevant in the future.

And others have proposed ways to deal with AI. Microsoft founder Bill Gates said robots should face income tax.

Some major figures have argued against the doomsday scenarios. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said he is "really optimistic" about the future of AI.

WATCH: Stephen Hawking: AI will 'transform or destroy' society