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Why Stephen Hawking is more afraid of capitalism than robots

Professor Stephen Hawking speaks during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium on August 29, 2012, in London, England.
Professor Stephen Hawking speaks during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics at the Olympic Stadium on August 29, 2012, in London, England.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In October, a Reddit user asked Stephen Hawking if he thinks robots are coming to take all of our jobs.

"In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated?" the user asked the renowned physicist on an Ask Me Anything thread.

The question isn't crazy. Computers are getting smarter and more efficient all the time. It's conceivable that we one day will reach a point where machines' output is simply much more valuable than humans'.

Hawking didn't discount the notion that machines may replace us. But he said whether this is good or bad depends on how the wealth produced by machines is distributed. That is, Hawking is more concerned about capitalism than he is about robots. 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. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.

We could be headed toward a work-free utopia where machine-produced goods and services are cheap and plentiful for all. Or, as Hawking suggests, the coming robot age will just exaggerate the income inequality that's rampant across the globe. (Hawking is generally ambivalent on the advent of artificial intelligence. "We are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history," he has said.)

Either scenario may still be a long way off. As Vox's Tim Lee has written, human labor is still in higher demand than robot labor, and it's likely to remain that way for at least a few more decades. North American factories purchased 23,700 industrial robots in 2013, he writes, while the economy still adds about a million new workers every year.

Lee has also noted the possibility that robots will never be able to match human abilities. But that scenario is less fun to think about.

More on whether robots will take over the world

  • Matthew Yglesias on "the automation myth." He writes: "None of the recent problems in the American economy are due to robots — or, to be more specific about it, due to an accelerating pace of automation."
  • A World Without Work. At the Atlantic, Derek Thompson muses on whether automation would end work as we know it. "The transition from labor force to leisure force would likely be particularly hard on Americans," he writes.