What Stephen Hawking learned from Brexit and Donald Trump

The world-renowned physicist has criticized both the election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union as 'outpourings of crude populism.' But he says the rest of the world should pay close attention to both factions.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
Physicist Stephen Hawking sits on stage during an announcement of the Breakthrough Starshot initiative with investor Yuri Milner in New York April 12, 2016.

Stephen Hawking says it’s time for the world to come together. 

The famous theoretical physicist penned an op-ed for The Guardian Thursday in which he presents political developments in America and Britain as products of economic inequality, triggered by technological innovations. 

While globalization and artificial intelligence allow society to progress, these two developments cause jobs to be cut and wealth to be concentrated, explained Dr. Hawking. Consequently, new technology compounds the threat of inequality bringing visible signs of the excesses of the wealthy into the homes and phones of those who are struggling most in the new economy. 

“It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal,” said Hawking, “which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”

The world-renowned physicist, who currently resides in Cambridge, England, was a vocal opponent of both Brexit (Britian’s departure from the European Union) as well as President-elect Donald Trump, whom Hawking has referred to as a “demagogue” appealing to people’s “lowest common denominator.”

But Hawking says that this sociological disruption comes at a very inconvenient time. In fact, due to environmental challenges like climate change and overpopulation, it comes at “the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.”

“For me, the really concerning aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together... To do that, we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations.”

Hawking says he is optimistic that humans can turn things around on the current planet despite advancing technology.

But to set the human species back on the right track, Hawking explained, people need to become better at sharing resources within their country and around the globe. Hawking made a point to call out political and academic elites (himself included) in his letter, arguing that this is work for everyone and requires large amounts of humility.

And technology does not necessarily have to be the enemy. A team of economists at Deloitte studied census data from England and Wales last year to determine the number of jobs lost to technology innovations over the years. Their results were surprising: jobs have actually increased because of technology. With more innovation comes more spending power, argued the economists, employing more people in service jobs.

“What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react,” wrote Hawking. “Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.”

Maybe someday humans can start over on a new planet, said Hawking. But Hawking warns that the technology for a self-sustaining colony in space will need at least another 100 years to develop.

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