Stephen Hawking Issues Dire Warning About AI and Robots

Stephen Hawking
Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

A Warning from Stephen Hawking

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is threatening America’s middle class jobs, says renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Yes, that Stephen Hawking. Worse still, Hawking says that academic and business elites are ignoring the social costs of progress.

He argues that robotics have already wiped out millions of blue-collar jobs, but that there is more pain on the way. By his telling, white-collar professions will be the next ones to go. (Source: “This is the most dangerous time for our planet,” The Guardian, December 1, 2016.)

“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,” Hawking warns in an op-ed for The Guardian. “This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world.”

What he means is this: artificial intelligence software is nearly good enough to replace most middle class workers. Algorithms from leading tech companies have made machines nearly indistinguishable from humans in some settings.

For instance, Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) unleashed a Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) “bot” that people believed was a real person. Alphabet Inc’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) AI can read lips better than a human, not to mention translate between languages. Baidu Inc (ADR) (NASDAQ:BIDU), has AI software which can talk almost exactly like a human.

The ability for an artificially intelligent software to answer questions and sound human could wipe out entire industries. For instance, the call center business. If companies can license an AI product and teach it to deal with customers, why would they hire humans?

Or, if driverless car technology is perfected, would it not endanger the jobs of millions of truck drivers? Some analysts brush these concerns aside, saying that the market will replace those old professions with new jobs. But Stephen Hawking thinks they are dead wrong.

“The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people,” he wrote. “This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”

He related these concerns to two major events this year: Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (EU) and the election of Donald Trump. On a personal level, Stephen Hawking was opposed to both of these ideas.

He warned that Britain leaving the EU could “damage scientific research” and “would be a step backward.” He likewise opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump.

But Hawking is a scientist, first and foremost.

His commitment to unbiased evaluation of data is supreme, so he is urging his fellow elites to understand what happened. People are worried about jobs, financial security, and what kind of future awaits their children. These are perfectly reasonable concerns, says Hawking.

He ends the laundry list of dire predictions with a plea: “We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.”