Prof. Hawking and the machines. Hopes, fears and possible misconceptions

20.12.2015 - Silvia Swinden

This post is also available in: Spanish

Prof. Hawking and the machines. Hopes, fears and possible misconceptions
(Image by Alexandar Vujadinovic, for Creative Commons, Wikipedia, Stephen Hawking holding a lecture at Stockholm Waterfront Congress Centre, 24 August 2015.)

“Prof Stephen Hawking, one of Britain’s pre-eminent scientists, has said that efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence. He told the BBC: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Scary stuff coming from a genius. And he added “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.”

Do I dare challenge one of the most brilliant (and much admired by me) minds of our times?

Prof Hawking knows a lot about machines, he lives very much in useful symbiosis with them. From his motorised wheelchair to his computer controlled voice synthesiser machines have allowed him to express his enormous capacity to take us on a leap forward in the understanding of the Universe, something that would have been impossible if he had lived in a less technological era.

But I do dare disagree with him. Human beings are not subjected to “slow biological evolution”. Our bodies might be, but our psychism is not.

A revolution in the evolution of consciousness occurred at the dawn of humanity when images became externalized, when humans began to imprint the images in their minds, in their Space of Representation on the walls of caves, in their language, giving names to things that in Nature have no name, transforming an image of a bowl into a clay bowl to transport water, or embers from one point to another until this led to the production of ceramics, the first experience of irreversible transformation of matter by fire done by humans.

Coupled with the progressive development of Intentionality, the particular way of each individual to structure the world in their Space of Representation [1] and exteriorize it in an interactive way with other humans, it gave birth to Culture, into which all future generations are born.

It is the historical accumulation of culture, this interactive externalization of the Space of Representation of all individuals of the species, that radically changed our evolutionary way, no longer depending only on the slow and random genetic mutations of nature that creates new features, some destined to extinction, others to make the individuals carrying them the most suitable for adaptation to a certain milieu.

In humans the cultural-historical accumulation caused an evolutionary acceleration never before seen in any other species. Whilst the physical body, particularly the brain, may still be tied to its physiological base, (perhaps in principle not so different from the first examples of the genre), it is capable of “plasticity”, that is, the capacity to develop new neural pathways in response to stimuli. In this way the new experiences to which it is exposed, precisely because of that historical and cultural accumulation, have been creating new neurophysiologic structures that have allowed an explosion of understandings and creating new horizons, including the much dreaded machines. This happens within each person’s lifetime. Newton’s famous “If I could see further it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants” is true, but even more important, we are all standing on the shoulders of all those who preceded and coexist with us.

Furthermore, although not fully accepted or proven a theory, not only genetic but also epigenetic transgenerational evolution (passing on acquired traits to offspring) could also explain some of the changes we see in the human evolutionary process.

Therefore whatever new tricks machines are able to develop in the future, humans have an enormous potential to develop new neural pathways to understand and absorb those changes into our own evolution. It is part of our capacity for Intentionality.

This does not mean that we should be complacent and believe it will all be OK.

We have witnessed once and again the misuse of technology for anti-humanist purposes based on the violent values of a dehumanising system, but it is human intentionality that has taken the wrong turn and it is also intentionality that is struggling to humanise, eliminate violence and create a world of solidarity and justice.

Prof. Hawkins disagreement #2

When asked in the New Reddit Journal of Science Q&As “Have you thought about the possibility of “technological unemployment”, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done? …”

He answered

“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”.

This was reported in several places as a kind of criticism of the present state of capitalism, which it probably is and from that point of view he is right, I agree wholeheartedly.

Where I think there is a blind spot about the possibility of machines doing most of the menial work is in the belief that for any person’s role in society there is only paid work or leisure (or unemployment, of course).

The progressive reduction in the working week or even the Universal Basic Income should liberate not only time for leisure but also time to learn, create and research the most important questions faced by humanity.

At the root of all our fears, like being displaced by machines, lies the fear of death, of loneliness, of illness, of old age, of a life without meaning. The present system based on “productivity” leaves no room for fundamental questions, or allows them only in restricted circles, academic or elitist. In fact some of the best minds of our times are wasted speculating in the Stock Market or building weapons of mass destruction, whilst we all, including such minds, feel unable to explore in any depth the question of Death and Transcendence or the Meaning of human existence. Because there is no time for it, we are too busy. And they cannot be “monetarised”!

The sooner the owners of the wealth, the promoters of inequality, subjected to the same questions and fears, realise that allowing more people to think and experiment in these áreas will also respond to their existential needs, the sooner humanity will exit its present state of violence and fear.

Therefore machines have a fundamental role to play in a humanised society that has realised their usefulness does not reside in further accumulation and concentration of wealth but on liberating the wealth of the human capacity for exploration and creativity for the benefit of all.


  1. Further reading about the Space of Representation: Psychology Notes, Silo
Categories: Europe, Humanism and Spirituality, Opinions, Science and Technology
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