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Stephen Hawking says robots could make us all rich and free - but we're more likely to end up poor and unemployed

The famed physicist warned that intelligent machines could make human workers obsolete in a Reddit AMA

Doug Bolton
Friday 09 October 2015 18:35 BST
Hawking warned the the rise of machines could leave the majority of people 'miserably poor'
Hawking warned the the rise of machines could leave the majority of people 'miserably poor' (EVERT ELZINGA/AFP/Getty Images)

In another warning against the potential dangers of artificial intelligence, physicist Stephen Hawking has said the rise of intelligent robots taking human jobs could potentially create massive social inequality.

Hawking made his warning in a reply to a question submitted during a Reddit 'ask me anything' question-and-answer session.

One Reddit user asked Hawking if the rise of intelligent robots could lead to "technological unemployment", where intelligent machines or programmes render expensive and unreliable human labour obsolete.

Hawking replied: "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."

Automation and technological advances have already replaced humans in many jobs, with much of this Chrysler assembly line being run by robots (Getty)

"So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality."

The idea of robots taking human jobs is a growing fear for many, but in one scenario, the machine revolution could lead to an easier and more prosperous life for humans.

Some technologists and proponents of a basic income promote the idea of hefty taxes on future companies who replace their human workers with robots.

With no staff to pay and their robot 'workers' able to labour 24 hours a day with no breaks or sick days, such firms would still be making profits many times larger than they do today, even with the taxes in place.

This tax would then be redistributed to humans in a free basic income, allowing them to work far less, or not at all.

In this case, workers are freed from the shackles of wage slavery and can spend their time either working on things they are passionate about, or enjoying their leisure, and businesspeople get a free and constantly-available workforce.

However, the other scenario, which Hawking warns against, sees companies using only robot workers operating unchecked, with the owners becoming incredibly wealthy and the now-unemployed human workers rendered obsolete and condemned to constant unemployment.

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction film, but a world where expensive human workers are replaced with unthinking machines isn't neccessarily that far away.

According to a 2013 Oxford study, 47 per cent of jobs, including those in traditional white-collar professions such as accountancy and legal work, are at serious risk of automation within the next 20 years.

Another report, published this year by Austalian youth advocacy group the Foundation for Young Australians, warns that 70 per cent of young people there currently enter the workforce in jobs that will be "radically affected by automation".

A separate 60 per cent of students are currently being trained for occupations in which at least two thirds of jobs could be automated within the next 10 to 15 years.

According to Hawking, whether the machine-run world results in leisure and wealth or unemployment and poverty is entirely down to decisions made by the technologists and politicians of tomorrow.

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