Technological automation might produce a utopia — or it could leave the vast majority of the world's population "miserably poor."
Stephen Hawking was a world-class physicist — but he was also much more.
The Cambridge professor was also a legendary science communicator, and was outspoken on a range of social and political issues — from artificial intelligence (AI) to climate change. And following the news of his death at age 76 this week, it's worth revisiting some of those remarks.
In his last-ever Reddit post, written in 2016, he issued an ominous warning about the future of humanity and capitalism: That technological automation might benefit humanity — or, if we're not careful, could instead send inequality skyrocketing and make life harder for the vast majority of world's population.
"If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed," Hawking wrote in an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") question-and-answer session on the website two years ago.
"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," he continued.
In the same AMA, Hawking also discussed the risks artificial intelligence at length, warning AI could view humans as "ants" that might be wiped out if we get in the way of its goals.
"The real risk with AI isn’t malice but competence. A superintelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble," he wrote.
"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," he said.