One of the world’s most celebrated scientists is warning that what was once science fiction is becoming a threatening scientific reality that requires considerable thought and preparation. Astronomer Stephen Hawking, who lives with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrigs disease), said in a column in The Guardian that both artificial intelligence and the increase of automation pose risks not only to employment for the middle classes, but also deepening inequality and politico-social turmoil.
Hawking wrote, that “the automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.”
Automation will, “in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world,” Hawking wrote. “The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”
Hawking said that anxieties over the economy have led to populist movements in Europe and North America. “We are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”
The rise of new technologies, such as drones and robots used by the military and police, driverless vehicles, and automated factories, have heightened concerns among observers about its possible effects on the workforce in the coming decades. There are fears that although artificial intelligence may increase industrial efficiency, those people who do not adapt will face unemployment and uncertainty while their jobs are taken over by machines.
A report released by Citibank and Oxford University predicted that 47% of American jobs may are at risk of automation, while in the UK, 35% are at risk. In China, the figure is much worse: 77%. Across the spectrum of the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the average is 57%. In addition, three of the world’s 10 largest employers are now replacing workers with robots.
Hawking repeated themes long prevalent in the progressive elite: overpopulation, climate change, and disease. He claimed that the present is the “most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.”
Hawking has said in the past that artificial intelligence may overtake human beings. Back in 2014, he said, “The development of artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He predicted, darkly, that “It would take off on its own, and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”