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Artificial intelligence and increasing automation is going to
decimate middle class jobs, worsening inequality and risking
significant political upheaval, Stephen Hawking has warned.
In a column in The Guardian, the world-famous physicist wrote
that “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 adds his voice to a growing chorus of experts concerned about
the effects that technology will have on workforce in the coming
years and decades. The fear is that while artificial intelligence
will bring radical increases in efficiency in industry, for
ordinary people this will translate into unemployment and
uncertainty, as their human jobs are replaced by machines.
Technology has already gutted many traditional manufacturing and
working class jobs — but now it may be poised to wreak similar
havoc with the middle classes.
A report put out in February 2016 by Citibank in partnership with
the University of Oxford predicted that 47% of US jobs are at
risk of automation. In the UK, 35% are. In China, it’s a whopping
77% — while across the OECD it’s an average of 57%.
And three of the world’s 10 largest employers are now
replacing their workers with robots.
Automation will, “in turn will accelerate the already widening
economic inequality around the world,” Hawking wrote. “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.”
He frames this economic anxiety as a reason for the rise in
right-wing, populist politics in the West: “We are living in a
world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in
which many people can see not just their standard of living, but
their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no
wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump
and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”
Combined with other issues — overpopulation, climate change,
disease — we are, Hawking warns ominously, at “the most dangerous
moment in the development of humanity.” Humanity must come
together if we are to overcome these challenges, he says.
Stephen Hawking has previously expressed concerns about
artificial intelligence for a different reason — that it might
overtake and replace humans. “The development of artificial
intelligence could spell the end of the human race,”
he said in late 2014. “It would take off on its own, and
redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are
limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would
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