Stephen Hawking Wonders Whether Capitalism or Artificial Intelligence Will Doom the Human Race

hawking capitalism future

Cre­ative Com­mons image via NASA

It should­n’t be espe­cial­ly con­tro­ver­sial to point out that we live in a piv­otal time in human history—that the actions we col­lec­tive­ly take (or that plu­to­crats and tech­nocrats take) will deter­mine the future of the human species—or whether we even have a future in the com­ing cen­turies. The threats posed by cli­mate change and war are exac­er­bat­ed and accel­er­at­ed by rapid­ly wors­en­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. Expo­nen­tial advances in tech­nol­o­gy threat­en to eclipse our abil­i­ty to con­trol machines rather than be con­trolled, or stamped out, by them.

It’s also the case that our most well-regard­ed sci­en­tists and tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tors have not remained silent in the face of these crises. Physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing has issued some dire warn­ings late­ly when it comes to human­i­ty’s future. Sev­er­al years ago, he pre­dict­ed that “our only chance of long term sur­vival” may be to “spread out into space,” a la Inter­stel­lar. In addi­tion to the wors­en­ing cli­mate cri­sis, the rise of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence con­cerns Hawk­ing. Along with Bill Gates and Elon Musk, he has warned of what futur­ist Ray Kurzweil has called “the sin­gu­lar­i­ty,” the point at which machine intel­li­gence sur­pass­es our own.

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Where Kurzweil has seen this event through an opti­mistic, New Age lens, Hawk­ing’s view seems more in line with dystopi­an sci-fi visions of robot apoc­a­lypse. “Suc­cess in AI would be the biggest event in human his­to­ry,” he wrote in The Inde­pen­dent last year, “Unfor­tu­nate­ly it might also be the last.” Giv­en the design of autonomous weapons sys­tems and, as he told the BBC, the fact that “Humans, who are lim­it­ed by slow bio­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion, could­n’t com­pete and would be super­seded,” the prospect looks chill­ing, but it isn’t inevitable.

Our tech isn’t active­ly out to get us. “The real risk with AI isn’t mal­ice but com­pe­tence,” Hawk­ing clar­i­fied, in a fas­ci­nat­ing Red­dit “Ask Me Any­thing” ses­sion last month. Due to the physi­cist’s phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, read­ers post­ed ques­tions and vot­ed on their favorites. From these, Hawk­ing elect­ed the “ones he feels he can give answers to.” In response to a top-rat­ed ques­tion about the so-called “Ter­mi­na­tor Con­ver­sa­tion,” he wrote, “A super­in­tel­li­gent AI will be extreme­ly good at accom­plish­ing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trou­ble.”

This prob­lem of mis­aligned goals is not of course lim­it­ed to our rela­tion­ship with machines. Our pre­car­i­ous eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ships with each oth­er pose a sep­a­rate threat, espe­cial­ly in the face of mas­sive job loss due to future automa­tion. We’d like to imag­ine a future where tech­nol­o­gy frees us of toil and want, the kind of soci­ety Buck­min­ster Fuller sought to cre­ate. But the truth is that wealth and income inequal­i­ty, at their high­est lev­els in the U.S. since at least the Gild­ed Age, may deter­mine a very dif­fer­ent path—one we might think of in terms of “The Ely­si­um Con­ver­sa­tion.” Asked in the same AMA Red­dit ses­sion, “Do you fore­see a world where peo­ple work less because so much work is auto­mat­ed? Do you think peo­ple will always either find work or man­u­fac­ture more work to be done?,” Hawk­ing elab­o­rat­ed,

If machines pro­duce every­thing we need, the out­come will depend on how things are dis­trib­uted. 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 redis­tri­b­u­tion. So far, the trend seems to be toward the sec­ond option, with tech­nol­o­gy dri­ving ever-increas­ing inequal­i­ty.

For decades after the Cold War, cap­i­tal­ism had the sta­tus of an unques­tion­ably sacred doctrine—the end of his­to­ry and the best of all pos­si­ble worlds. Now, not only has Hawk­ing iden­ti­fied its excess­es as dri­vers of human decline, but so have oth­er decid­ed­ly non-Marx­ist fig­ures like Bill Gates, who in a recent Atlantic inter­view described the pri­vate sec­tor as “in gen­er­al inept” and unable to address the cli­mate cri­sis because of its focus on short-term gains and max­i­mal prof­its. “There’s no for­tune to be made,” he said, from deal­ing with some of the biggest threats to our sur­vival. But if we don’t deal with them, the loss­es are incal­cu­la­ble.

via Huff Po

Relat­ed Con­tent:

187 Big Thinkers Answer the Ques­tion: What Do You Think About Machines That Think?

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Sev­en Ques­tions for Stephen Hawk­ing: What Would He Ask Albert Ein­stein & More

Stephen Hawk­ing: Aban­don Earth Or Face Extinc­tion

Noam Chom­sky Explains Where Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Went Wrong

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Retiredbiker says:

    I think reli­gion will prob­a­bly accom­plish the task before cap­i­tal­ism or AI.

  • David Davis says:

    I sec­ond that.

  • Hanoch says:

    If there is any eco­nom­ic sys­tem which has con­tributed more to mate­r­i­al well-being, the alle­vi­a­tion of suf­fer­ing, and human health than free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, I would be curi­ous to know what it is.

  • John says:

    That was­n’t free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, that was Euro­pean wel­fare state (reg­u­lat­ed cap­i­tal­ism) which was most­ly reg­u­lat­ed because of left­ist demands (right wing tends do not give a damn about human rights & reg­u­la­tions). You’ll be thrown into Wild Wild West aka Mid­dle Ages in no time through real free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism. Not to men­tion all psy­cho­path­ic behav­iors and sociopa­thy cre­at­ed by bru­tal cap­i­tal­ism.

  • TILII says:

    Luna­cy. Yep, the free­dom to inter­act with oth­ers, pur­chase what you want, man­u­fac­ture what oth­ers desire, and con­tribute to the longer lives and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly rich lives of oth­ers, who freely and with­out coer­cion buy your prod­ucts and ser­vices, leads to the Dark Ages! So many fal­lac­i­es it’s hard to know where to begin. Psy­cho­path­ic behav­iors? Sociopa­thy? The gov­’t indoc­tri­na­tion cen­ters are tru­ly fail­ing this nation.

  • Mr.Vishram G Naik says:

    Evil is a late entrant in the affairs of intel­li­gent life and when arti­fi­cial intel­li­gent life reach­es the lev­els of equal or more that that of intel­li­gent life,it will have trans­verse a dif­fer­ent jour­ney of evolution,it will not have/fear death,pain and will not have to deal with the ethics of killing for liv­ing, it will not need cru­el­ty
    for it to sur­vive and con­tin­ue the quest of the ulti­mate real­i­ty of the universe.It will car­ry us along view­ing as infe­ri­or beings.also it may view itself as God’s wish in a mys­ti­cal jour­ney of aware­ness.
    Regards aliens it is more like­ly we will first meet their
    cre­ation of Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gent life,unless we find new ways of trans vers­ing the vast void of space in a way of ‘eat­ing’ up space with­out vio­lat­ing the laws of sci­ence.

    A add on sym­bol, for intel­li­gent life,plucked from the top left cor­ner of the Pio­neer 10 plaque has been pro­posed
    in the already pub­lished Kin­dle E‑e-book “Knowledge(Primarily sci­en­tif­ic) Con­tra­dic­tion And Human Iden­ti­ty A call for help” it has to be edit­ed for glitches,etc before open­ing up for pub­lic dis­cus­sions.



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