Stephen Hawking says technology will devastate the middle class

Commentary: The famous physicist pleads for humans to work together, as this is "the most dangerous time for our planet."

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Stephen Hawking
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Stephen Hawking

The truth about the world is somber.

Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Since the election, there seems to be little recognition on the part of the tech industry as to what sort of role it's played in making people angry enough to vote for Donald Trump.

Somehow, tech CEOs are far too convinced they're making the world a better place to notice that, for many, they haven't.

It's bracing, then, to see one of our era's foremost scientists doing their dirty work for them.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Stephen Hawking continues with his usual portents of fear and gloom, even though he claims to be optimistic. He also confesses, however, how isolating it can be to live in what he calls the "extraordinarily privileged bubble" that is being a Cambridge scientist.

He views the Brexit vote and the election of Trump as a rejection of elites. It is, he says, "surely aimed at me, as much as anyone."

The anti-Hawking faction is, indeed, strong in certain areas of northern England and Ohio.

The danger he now sees is that the elites dismiss the results and the people who voted. Technology and globalization are affecting many people adversely, he says.

"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," he says.

Yes, robots are now better salespeople than humans. Allegedly.

What happens when there are even fewer human jobs left? Even greater inequality. This is progress that, to him, is "socially destructive." More so, he says, because the internet allows poorer people to have far greater awareness of the lifestyles of the rich and dunderheaded, which generates resentment.

The problem, of course, lies in finding a solution to the madness that we're creating. Hawking sees people working together as the only option.

"We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans," he says.

But as we increasingly become selfie-centered, selfish beings, how much do we really care about all that, as long as our stock options vest? Hawking believes we have to look outward to save the species.

"With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so," he says.

What about immigration, one of the great fears used by the election winners to get people to vote for them?

"If communities and economies cannot cope with current levels of migration," says Hawking, "we must do more to encourage global development, as that is the only way that the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home."

Ah, but we're all becoming more isolationist. America first. Britain first. The rest? Oh, who cares?

Then again, humans do have one fine skill: doing something about problems -- just when it's too late.