On the Rise of the Machines

In a thoughtful essay in The Guardian, Stephen Hawking argues that scientists, as much as any other individual operating within the sphere of “the elites” as variously understood, need to attend to the rise of populism in the recent elections in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. 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.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. 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.

His answer: the elites need to be more humble. Really? I don’t know if I’m one of those elites or not. I suspect many would put me in there because I’m an academic, but I look at my paycheck and the declining possibility of retirement, and I don’t feel very elite. One thing I do feel is that it is not, not, the responsibility of scholars and scientists that their expertise has been undermined. I think that moment has to be laid at the doorstep of industry which is always happy to have science when it makes them money, but when it suggests that paradigms shifts are required, prefer the status quo.

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