Stephen Hawking’s work in physics was revolutionary. He is the one person who could write “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.”
Unimaginable brilliance in one area of endeavor does not translate into brilliance in all things. Because of Hawking’s celebrity status, many treat his opinions as important commentary on subjects outside his expertise.
With his death, some of his comments are resurfacing, especially a two-year-old exchange about technology on Reddit that has now gone viral:
Question: I'm rather late to the question-asking party, but I'll ask anyway and hope. Have you thought about the possibility of technological unemployment, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done? Thank you for your time and your contributions. I’ve found research to be a largely social endeavor, and you've been an inspiration to so many.
Hawking: If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
A Perennial Fear
Hawking’s fear is not new. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I feared a knitting machine would make beggars of her poor subjects.
The history of the knitting machine is told by professors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail. In 1583, Queen Elizabeth had issued a decree “that her people should always wear a knitted cap.” Reverend William Lee, a 16th Century inventor, observed his mother and sisters knitting in the twilight and recorded "knitters were the only means of producing such garments but it took so long to finish the article.”
Lee became obsessed with the idea of making a machine that would save his mother and sisters and all women from the endless hard work of knitting. Lee wrote, “The idea of my machine and the creating of it ate into my heart and brain."
By 1589, Lee’s "stocking frame" knitting machine was built. Lee, in an audience with Queen Elizabeth, asked for a patent. Elizabeth’s reaction echoes Hawking’s fear:
Thou aimest high, Master Lee. Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars.
Elizabeth and her successor James l were concerned, according to Acemoglu and Robinson, about what Lee’s machine would do to their political power,
The fear of creative destruction is the main reason why there was no sustained increase in living standards between the Neolithic and Industrial revolutions. Technological innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the replacement of the old with the new, and the destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people. For sustained economic growth we need new technologies, new ways of doing things, and more often than not they will come from newcomers such as Lee.
Lee died “broken and penniless,” but his knitting machine began the mechanization of the textile industry and helped usher in the Industrial Revolution which has lifted billions out of poverty.
The Washing Machine
Hawking wrote, "[P]eople can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against redistribution." Perhaps Hawking thought seizing the wealth generated by entrepreneurs would create a luxury communist paradise.
Consider the washing machine. In developed countries, the drudgery of the weekly hand-washing cycle was eliminated, sparing women hundreds of hours a year of home labor. The result was increased wealth for the poor and middle-class. Rising standards of living occurred without redistribution of wealth from washing machine manufacturers.
Statistician Hans Rosling pointed to the five billion who still don’t have washing machines:
How do most of the women in the world wash? Because it remains hard work for women to wash. They wash like this: by hand. It's a hard, time-consuming labor, which they have to do for hours every week. And sometimes they also have to bring water from far away to do the laundry at home, or they have to bring the laundry away to a stream far off. And they want the washing machine. They don't want to spend such a large part of their life doing this hard work with so relatively low productivity.
When introduced, did the washing machine create unemployment? When women in the developing world become "technologically unemployed" from sewing their own clothes and hand-washing their clothes, will they be better off or worse off?
Did the personal computer create unemployment? I'm old enough to remember the pre-PC era. People had jobs operating mainframes, keypunching, and word processing. Those jobs are mostly gone, and there are more people now employed in technology than there were before. Those new jobs pay more.
Early in my career, my university had just a few dedicated word processing machines running a program called WordStar. If you had a manuscript, you would get in the queue for your typewritten paper to be word-processed. The process, as you can imagine, was painstakingly slow compared to today’s standards; and yet, compared to a typewriter, word-processing was a tremendous breakthrough.
In just a few short years, the era of the word-processor gave way to the personal computer. Faculty became more productive; and employees who spent their days word processing were now free to do more creative things, such as assisting with department budgeting or organizing conferences. A few years later, technology nearly eliminated another tedious task from departmental secretaries: far less time was spent answering phones and taking messages.
Technology allowed secretaries to do more self-actualizing work, and their financial rewards grew with their new duties. No longer secretaries, they were now administrative assistants or coordinators of programs.
The Scale of Change
Hawking’s warning convinced many that this time, it's different because of the scale of change; he feared technology would create massive unemployment.
Large-scale change is not new.
Disappearing occupations are nothing new. What happened to the elevator operators? What happened to the ice harvesters when the refrigerator replaced the icebox?
Large-scale change is not new. What has happened to farming in America? In 1800, 83 percent of Americans worked in agriculture; today, it's only 1.5 percent. Did this unimaginable change create unemployment and poverty?
Just over a century ago, only 25 percent of American households had running water. It would be decades before things taken for granted today—electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing—were commonplace.
Nobody Can Guess What
Lucy Larcom was a 19th-Century American poet who, at age 11, out of economic necessity, worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts.
In her book, A New England Girlhood, she writes of her experience at the mill. She was not the only mill employee dreaming of more than millwork. In the mill, she encountered other poets, singers, and writers who, like her, were hungry for education and eagerly attended the Lyceum lectures of the day. She writes:
The Lyceum lecture…was a means of education, conveying to the people the results of study and thought through the best minds. At Lowell it was more patronized by the mill-people than any mere entertainment. We had John Quincy Adams, Edward Everett, John Pierpont, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among our lecturers.
She couldn’t have imagined today’s America—a much higher standard of living with fewer mill workers and more people pursuing their dreams. Yet, she was keenly aware that her world was already changing. “Things that looked miraculous” to her parents were commonplace to her.
“Our attitude—the attitude of the time,” wrote Larcom, “was that of children climbing their dooryard fence, to watch an approaching show, and to conjecture what more remarkable spectacle could be following behind.”
“All was expectancy.” Larcom added, “Changes were coming. Things were going to happen, nobody could guess what.”
Larcom was a better economist than Hawking. With her humble words, “nobody could guess what,” she orients us to the unknown and away from static thinking hemmed in by what is known.
If you believe change must be planned and controlled, then Hawking’s fear may arise in you, for such planning has produced human misery and poverty through the eons.
Instead, look towards the entrepreneurial discovery process that cannot be predicted, controlled, or planned but is certain to yield the miraculous.