Stephen Hawking may well have been one of our most respected scientists of the past 100-years, but he was also deeply passionate about a range of subjects outside of his area of expertise.
From warning about the risks associated with artificial intelligence (AI) and weaponised robots, to campaigning for the NHS and battling Brexit, Hawking was not afraid to lend his voice to a cause he felt passionate about.
The rise of AI and ‘killer robots’
In 2015 at the Zeitgeist conference in London Hawking famously predicted that computers would finally overtake humans within 100 years.
Along with this bold prediction, the scientist warned while this would be a momentous moment in human history it wouldn’t be without its risks.
“When that happens, we need to make sure the computers have goals aligned with ours, our future is a race between the growing power of technology and the wisdom with which we use it,” he said.
In that same year Hawking, along with a group of other prominent scientists including Elon Musk, wrote an open letter calling for the immediate and permanent ban of what they called offensive autonomous weapons.
While they don’t technically exist yet, the open letter warned that these ‘killer robots’ could become dangerously commonplace as we advance in the areas of AI and robotics.
“Unlike nuclear weapons, they [AI weapons] require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc,” it said.
While Hawking enjoyed speaking around these subjects his comments weren’t without some level of controversy with some experts calling his predictions “over the top”.
Speaking to AFP, Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, an AI expert and moral philosopher at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, said “Many things in AI unleash emotion and worry because it changes our way of life,” Ganascia said.
“Hawking said there would be autonomous technology which would develop separately from humans. He has no evidence to support that. There is no data to back this opinion.”
Despite the backlash, Hawking never swayed from his view and a year later made the damning prediction that AI would be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity”.
Leaving Earth and colonising the Solar System
Hawking believed that humanity would have to eventually leave Earth if it was to survive as a species.
In his 2016 Oxford Union speech Hawking warned that humanity had a limited amount of time within which it would need to start colonising other planets.
“I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet,” he said.
Much like Elon Musk, Hawking believed because humanity was at such a high risk from extinction by being on one planet, the only solution was to leave it and start exploring the stars.
In the afterword of Julian Guthrie’s new book titled ‘How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight’, Hawking writes:
“I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as a sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers.
Stephen Hawking on Jeremy Corbyn
In an interview with the Times last year Hawking called Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “disaster” for the party.
“His heart is in the right place and many of his policies are sound but he has allowed himself to be portrayed as a left-wing extremist.”
“I think he should step down for the sake of the party,” Hawking said.
While Professor Hawking admitted that he actually agreed with many of the policies that the Labour leader supported, he was concerned that Corbyn’s public image had been damaged beyond repair.
Despite all of this, Hawking said that he would have voted for Corbyn but to do so would probably be futile.
Professor Hawking famously predicted that Brexit will be a ‘disaster’ for science and was a strong opponent of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
In an open letter along with 149 other signatories from the Royal Society the scientist warned about the huge impact it would have on Britain’s ability to be a leader in the world of science.
“We now recruit many of our best researchers from continental Europe, including younger ones who have obtained EU grants and have chosen to move with them here.
“If the UK leaves the EU and there is a loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe it will be a disaster for UK science and universities.”
He didn’t stop there, writing in the Guardian, Hawking himself penned a damning critique of Brexit and how it would affect the UK.
British science needs all the money it can get, and one important source of such funding has for many years been the European commission,” Hawking wrote. “Without these grants, much important work would not and could not have happened.”
Jeremy Hunt And The NHS
Hawking was a big fan of the NHS saying he “would not be here today if it were not for the service”.
He was also a lifelong Labour supporter and made his disdain for Tory Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, clear on a number of occasions.
On privatisation, Hawking said the NHS was being subjected to competing forces, with the public who want a taxpayer-funded free service on one side and multinational corporations on the other.
He wrote: “In the US, where they are dominant in the healthcare system, these corporations make enormous profits, healthcare is not universal, and it is hugely more expensive for the outcomes patients receive than in the UK.
“We see the balance of power in the UK is with private healthcare companies, and the direction of change is towards a US-style insurance system.”
Hunt, rather than address Hawking directly, instead tweeted a rebuttal.
Which did not end well for him.