Bob McDonald's Blog

Disagreeing with Stephen Hawking

Not everyone agrees with Hawking's views on the on the future of humanity, alien life, and artificial intelligence.
Stephen Hawking died at his home in England on Wednesday at the age of 76. (Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters)

The world mourns the loss of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, for his pioneering work on black holes, Big Bang cosmology, as well as his remarkable achievements in popularizing science. But with all due respect to one of the greatest minds in science, not everyone agreed with his views on the future of humanity, alien life, and artificial intelligence.

As Professor Hawking became more visible in the public eye, with best selling books, appearances in movies, and television programs, he departed from his prime expertise in quantum physics to make dire warnings about the future. He stated that it is vital for humans to leave planet Earth and colonize other worlds because conditions here are likely to become unlivable. He believed contact with aliens would be dangerous because they could treat us the way European explorers treated Indigenous North Americans, which didn't turn out well for the Indigenous people, and he feared that machines, through artificial intelligence, could take over humanity.

While these are all legitimate fears, scientists working in these fields believe there are ways to deal with them.

Colonizing other planets

If you look at the current state of the environment — climate change, growing population, consumption of resources, and mass extinction of species — it is easy to believe we are on the road to calamity. At the same time, leaving planet Earth for another world is becoming much cheaper, thanks to private companies such as SpaceX. And indeed, CEO Elon Musk is building a mega-rocket to establish a colony on Mars in the next 50 years.

If colonists manage to overcome daunting survival challenges on Mars, they might build a society – and an economy. (Mars Society)

Certainly, a small number of intrepid explorers will establish a new life on another planet, but it will not be a mass migration that leaves the Earth abandoned. After all, it was only a small percentage of Europeans who migrated to America. The rest stayed, and there is a prosperous population there today.

So rather than assume the Earth is doomed, the environmental crisis should be a call to action to deal with the problems, so we can maintain a healthy lifestyle on this planet.

In the end, taking care of Earth is actually an easier option than moving to another planet, because all the other locations in our solar system we know of are very dangerous and difficult places to live. On Mars, for example, the air is extremely thin and contains only traces of oxygen.The temperature seldom goes above freezing, and there is barely any ozone layer there to protect against solar and cosmic radiation. Colonists will live in harsh, isolated conditions similar to living at the south pole. There are ideas to terraform Mars and turn it into a more Earth-like world, but that will take vast amounts of energy and decades to accomplish, if it could be done at all.

We already live on the most habitable planet in the solar system, so why would we want to leave the Garden of Eden to set up camp in hell?

Potential contact with aliens

Professor Hawking also believed that we should keep quiet in the cosmos and not make contact with aliens because they might have nasty intentions. But discovering alien life is the dream of astrobiologists who are anxious to answer one of the most fundamental questions in science: are we alone in the universe?

Thousands of planets are being discovered orbiting other stars, with many of them in the "habitable zone" where liquid water could exist on their surfaces. The odds are increasing that there is likely someone out there who would be interesting to talk to. Of course there is the chance they could be warmongers (although some suggest the aliens have more to fear from us than we do from them), or hungry to add us to their dinner menu, but they represent a tremendous opportunity for us to learn from them.

(Shutterstock)

If alien spaceships arrive on Earth, they have conquered interstellar travel and likely possess other futuristic technology we haven't dreamed of. Imagine taking a modern car back to the 1950s and trying to explain GPS navigation, bluetooth wireless, automated cruise control and self parking. We would seem like aliens to our own grandparents. The benefits to be gained from meeting aliens from space outweighs the fears that they may be malevolent.

Fears of artificial intelligence

The same can be said for the fear of artificial intelligence taking over from humanity. Fear of robots is as old as, well, robots. And while machine learning programs make really good chess players, or can sift through large volumes of data, none of them has come close to matching the abilities of the human brain. Smart machines are specialists who become really good at a few tasks, but no one is trying to develop an artificial human with a desire to take over the world.  

(Reuters)

There is no doubt Stephen Hawking's scientific legacy will fill history books. And part of the scientific process is debate and argument. But just because someone is brilliant, doesn't mean you have to agree with everything they say. Hawking himself embraced debate, it is truly sad that we no longer have the opportunity to have an intelligent argument with him.

Perhaps the best way we could honour his legacy is to heed his warning to humanity, and ensure our own survival on this planet.