Book reveals Hawking’s last warning to humanity

Prophet: “[The] future will depend more on science and technology than any previous generation.”

Is humanity in danger? Genetically modified superhumans, climate chaos and an AI apocalypse — Stephen Hawking’s final book, which was published yesterday, predicts a future full of peril.

It is a message from beyond the grave. Seven months after his death, Stephen Hawking’s final thoughts on the future of humanity have been revealed in the book: Brief Answers to the Big Questions. Some of his prophecies make for disturbing reading.

In one passage he predicts the rise of genetically engineered “superhumans”. Hawking believed wealthy people could soon use DNA editing to enhance their offspring’s bodies and abilities — effectively creating a superior race.

“Some people won't be able to resist the temptation to improve human characteristics, such as size of memory, resistance to disease and length of life,” he wrote. “Once such superhumans appear, there are going to be significant political problems with the unimproved humans, who won’t be able to compete. Presumably, they will die out.”

Governments can try to prevent this by strictly regulating how genetic engineering is used. However, there is one area of technology that could become totally uncontrollable: artificial intelligence (AI).

According to Hawking, computers are approaching an “intelligence explosion” resulting in “machines whose intelligence exceeds ours by more than ours exceeds that of snails.”

“Future AI could develop a will of its own,” he added. “One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders and potentially subduing us with weapons we cannot even understand.”

If that does not finish Earth off, something else will: “[it is] almost inevitable that either a nuclear confrontation or environmental catastrophe will cripple the Earth at some point,” he wrote.

By then, he hoped humanity will have left the planet, escaping disaster by finding new homes in distant worlds.

Indeed, an optimism runs through much of Hawking’s work. At the book’s launch a voice message was played which Hawking had recorded before he died, specifically addressed to young people. “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” he urged them. “Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.”

Is the future of humanity really in danger?

Extinct

Not necessarily, some say. Technology also means progress. One day, AI could end world hunger, and genetic engineering could cure countless diseases. By raising awareness of the dangers, Hawking helps the next generation of scientists avoid them. The future is bright.

Don’t be so sure, others respond. Politicians are ill-equipped to solve the climate crisis. And for every well-meaning gene therapist, there is another person willing to use the technology for immoral ends. As for AI, the chaos it may unleash would wipe out all of its short-term benefits. We should be worried.

You Decide

  1. Are you optimistic about the future?
  2. What will be the most important scientific development of the next 100 years?

Activities

  1. Imagine what the world will be like in the year 3018. In one minute, write down predictions of what you think life will be like then. Share your ideas with the class. Are most of the predictions positive or negative? What does this say about how we feel about the future?
  2. Do some research into genetic engineering. Use the resources in Become An Expert to start you off. Write a one-paragraph answer to this question: The benefits of genetic engineering will far outweigh the risks. To what extent do you agree?

Some People Say...

“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

Stephen Hawking

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In the book, Hawking also expresses his thoughts on other big questions. On the existence of God he wrote: “is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second.” He is also confident that other life forms exist in space, and that humanity will one day colonise other areas of the universe.
What do we not know?
We do not know if genetic modification can currently be used to safely enhance a person’s physical or intellectual characteristics without side effects. We do not know how long it will be before artificial intelligence becomes smart enough to threaten humanity, and we do not know if government efforts to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will be enough.

Word Watch

Death
He died in March aged 76. Diagnosed with motor neurone disease in his 20s, he was given just two years to live — a prediction he defied by several decades.
Big Questions
Other questions that Hawking explored in the book include: Is there a God? Can we predict the future? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Should we colonise space?
DNA editing
One of the most advanced techniques is known as CRISPR. This process allows scientists to precisely remove and replace genes. See the second video in Become An Expert to find out more.
Superior race
In the early 20th century, some thinkers championed eugenics — encouraging those considered as superior to breed, and those of lower classes to be sterilised. This has since been widely and thoroughly condemned.
Escaping
Entrepreneur Elon Musk has also expressed his desire to colonise Mars.