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Stephen Hawking
British physicist Stephen Hawking worries about humanity’s long-term future on Earth. (Credit: NASA)

World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking says Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s presidential victory serve as wakeup calls amid what he says is “the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.”

And he says that elite members of society, including himself, have to take those wakeup calls to heart.

In an opinion piece written for The Guardian, Hawking said that the past year’s game-changing outcomes have their roots in the economic consequences of globalization and accelerating technological change. Automation has already cut into manufacturing jobs, and the rise of artificial intelligence could extend the job losses “deep into the middle class,” he said:

“This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. 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.”

Hawking goes on to say that the economic inequality will become only more visible as the internet knits the inhabitants of our planet closer together. That will add to the pressures created by mass migrations, overpopulation and pandemics, plus environmental challenges ranging from climate change to the loss of biodiversity.

“Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.

“To do that, we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations. If we are to stand a chance of doing that, the world’s leaders need to acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many. With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.”

Is humanity up to the challenge? Rather than building walls between nations, Hawking says governments have to do more to encourage global development and retrain workers for the 21st-century economy.

“We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.”

Hawking has warned about a variety of potential challenges to our survival, ranging from out-of-control technology and AI run amok to contact with extraterrestrial civilizations and the risk of a vacuum-bubble doomsday. But this warning cuts closer to home. It’s well worth reading the whole essay on The Guardian’s website.

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