Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 441 | Abril 2018



The apocalypse according to Stephen Hawking

The great scientist Stephen Hawking died on March 14, his loss creating a vacuum that will be difficult to fill. Among his multiple legacies are dire warnings about the future of both the Earth and humanity. Here are a few.

Various Authors

The renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking died in Cambridge, England, at the age of 76. Over nearly 60 years of public scientific life, the astrophysicist devoted himself to understanding the basic laws governing the Universe. His main goal in the field of physics was to arrive at a “unified theory,” the “theory of everything,” that could resolve the contradictions between Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum theory.

During the last 20 years of his life, Hawking, the most popular and media-friendly scientist of all time, frequently warned in different media and scientific outlets of the many ways in which the Universe, planet Earth and the human race could go extinct if humankind doesn’t look for new planets to inhabit and fails to unite against climate change, nuclear wars and technological determinism.

“The Earth will die in 2600”

At the 2017 Tencent WE Summit in Beijing, China, Hawking announced his estimate that exponential world population growth, together with growing demand for energy, will cause life on Earth to collapse in around 600 years. His striking prediction that “the Earth will become a sizzling ball of fire” quickly made its way around the world.

A starkly illustrated article in the technology website Tech Insider titled “7 horrifying ways the Earth could die” explains that our planet would only become a fireball if “consumed” by the sun. Citing various sources, the authors describe it thusly: “The Sun, and our position relative to it, is perhaps the most important piece of our tenuous existence. But the Sun is still a star. And stars die. Right now, the Sun is midway through life, steadily converting hydrogen into helium through fusion. Billions of years from now the Sun will run low on hydrogen and start fusing helium. As ut’s a more energetic reactionm it will push the sun’s layers outward, and possibly start pulling the Earth toward the sun. We’d be incinerated and then vaporized. That or the sun’s expansion would push the Earth out of orbit.”

“The human race has no future
if it doesn’t go into space”

If the Earth left its orbit, it would then become a ball of ice, having lost its tether to any star. This prediction led Hawking to give another warning: “The human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”

During the summit in China, Hawking warned via videoconference that by 2600 humanity will need to have colonized another planet in order to survive. Humans should “boldly go where no one has gone before,” he declared. NASA scientists present at the summit supported his statement.
The famous scientist proposed turning our gaze toward Alpha Centauri, the star system nearest our Sun, located around 4.37 light years or 41.3 billion kilometers from our blue planet. At the summit, Hawking solicited financing for the “Breakthrough Starshot” project, of which he is a member, which involves developing a probe to carry a ship that would travel nearly at the speed of light. Facebook founder and owner Mark Zuckerberg responded to the call to back this initiative.

This system, Hawking said, “could reach Mars in less than an hour… and Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years.” If all goes well, we could have planet samples from the Alpha Centauri star system brought back by that ship by a little after the middle of this century.

“Full artificial intelligence could
spell the end of the human race”

“Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded,” warned Hawking in 2017 in the magazine Wired, regarding the nearly unexplored possibilities that Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers.

Two years earlier he had expressed deep fear about the very real possibility that AI would develop to the point of intentionally murdering human beings. He thus proposed developing a parallel technology to identify potential threats posed by AI. In November 2017, at the Internet Conference in Lisbon, he made his most alarming public statement yet about his fears surrounding AI, declaring that it could be the greatest or the worst event in the history of our civilization.

“Since civilization began, aggression has been useful inasmuch as it has definite survival advantages. It is hard-wired into our genes by Darwinian evolution,” Hawking told The Times. “Now, however, technology has advanced at such a pace that this aggression may destroy us all by nuclear or biological war. We need to control this inherited instinct by our logic and reason.” Following this line of thought, the real risk of Artificial Intelligence is not that robots turn bad, but that they start to compete with humans, though for jobs or social positions rather than for natural resources like food or drinking water.

“You’re probably not an evil ant-hater who steps on ants out of malice,” said Hawking to The Independent, “but if you’re in charge of a hydroelectric green energy project and there’s an anthill in the region to be flooded, too bad for the ants. Let’s not place humanity in the position of those ants.”

“We should really be scared
of capitalism, not of robots”

In a live, on-line question and answer session regularly hosted by Reddit, called “Ask Me Anything,” Hawking responded in August 2015 to questions site users sent him. Among other things, he wrote, “Machines won’t bring about the apocalypse—but greedy humans will,” declaring that he was more worried about the effects of capitalism than those of robotics. Elaborating on that, he explained that “if machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed.… 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. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.” In his vision of the economic/robotic apocalypse, the corporations that own the machines would become the new era’s bourgeoisie, denying jobs to real, human workers, creating a more violent class war.

Writing about the session with Hawking, HuffPost added an observation on unequal distribution by French economist Thomas Picketty: Since the chasm between the super-rich and the rest of humanity is already growing given that capital, stocks or properties (artificial intelligence robots in this case) accrue value at a much faster rate than the actual economy, wages can never catch up. The article concludes on this chilling note: “If Hawking is right, the problem won’t be about catching up.” Technology will be the determining factor between wealth and abject poverty.

Information compiled from various sources and edited by envío.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


With the international siege closing in, the social networks are now a target

Nicaragua briefs

A country’s prisons reflect its social and political reality

Why are we ignoring science?

Fears, efforts, lessons, challenges and hope in the second round of elections

El Salvador
A shift to the right in this year’s legislative elections

The apocalypse according to Stephen Hawking
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development