Stephen Hawking says we should be more frightened of capitalism than robots

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, the physicist expresses more concern about economic inequality than about artificial intelligence.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

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

Does he hope for an equal technological distribution of wealth? Stephen Hawking/Facebook screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

If only worries could be prioritized.

If only our minds and souls could decide that one was bigger than another and treat it that way. Sometimes, though, multiple worries cascade upon us.

Physicist Stephen Hawking, though, seems to have suddenly discovered something more worrisome than robots.

Last year, he was concerned that humans were evolving so slowly that artificial intelligence might walk all over us. On Thursday, however, he found a more immediate concern.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything session, Hawking offered a new disturbance in an answer to a long question about technological unemployment.

"If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed," he wrote. "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."

Some might almost see this as a hope for technological socialism. However, Hawking observed: "So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality."

Many have debated and will continue to debate whether technology really does drive inequality or whether people adjust to new circumstances and new ingenuity brings new markets and new jobs, ones previously unforeseen.

Some weren't impressed with Hawking's economics and its implied politics.

"Shorter Stephen Hawking: 'For hundreds of years, people who claimed that machines reduce jobs have looked silly. But I'll be different!'" tweeted venture capitalist Marc Andreesen.

Andreesen went on to suggest that "someone buy Stephen Hawking an Economics 101 textbook please."

Worries about increasing income inequality aren't without foundation. Instead of seeming like a temporary attribute of society, it feels like something that's becoming permanent. Whether technology is to blame for this isn't clear. There are many factors contributing to the division of income. Greedy rich people whose wealth doesn't trickle down terribly far might be one factor, some might say.

Hawking, though, seems firmly on the side of those who worry that society is becoming permanently skewed. Still, he did find the time to address slightly lighter matters.

"The real risk with AI isn't malice but competence," he said, conceding that it was "likely to be either the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, so there's huge value in getting it right."

He also admitted that his favorite movie was Truffaut's "Jules Et Jim" and that his favorite song was Rod Stewart's "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You."

It's a Van Morrison song, professor. You're not seriously suggesting that the Rod Stewart version is better, are you? That truly is scary.