Friday, March 10, 2017

Hawking wants to put the fox in charge of the henhouse

Stephen Hawking is someone I most admire. He has been confined to a wheel chair since his twenties with ALS but that hasn't stopped his mind soaring to the farthest reaches of the universe to solve some of the great mysteries of science - how did it all begin, what are black holes and how do they work, and what is the nature of time and why does it run in only one direction? He is probably the most influential physicist since Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and certainly the best known of our contemporary scientists.

Recently he has been turning his attention to scientific issues that cross over into the political arena, including the potential risk of technologies such as robotics to wipe out humanity. On the positive side, he has been urging greater exploration and eventually colonisation of Mars and other planets, but he has also been pushing the hoary old idea of global government. He sees the latter as the solution to the problem of humanity's aggressive nature but he acknowledges the risk of such a governing body becoming tyrannical. Indeed.

I think we should consider Hawking's concerns in light of the revelations of another Steven. I am reading the book, Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker, which is probably the most comprehensive treatise on the trends in human violence that has ever been written. Pinker shows that contrary to the impressions of many people today, human violence of every type has been decreasing sharply since the the Middle Ages - including war, religious and judicial violence, criminal assault and even domestic violence. It gives a very positive picture of humanity in the 21st Century and when combined with other studies that look at the very positive trends in the quality of life, prosperity and equity for humanity, it is grounds for a great deal of optimism rather than Hawking's pessimism.

One of the conclusions we can draw from Pinker's and other data is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from the inherent violence in our nature, which for whatever reasons is decreasing, but from the propensity of human beings to look for solutions to their problems from strong leaders. It is powerful governments who represent the existential risk to humanity, not individuals. Hawking's solution is to trust a global government to keep us safe, which is simply putting all our eggs in one basket. I am not a famous physicist but I am something of a risk management expert and I can tell you that Hawking's proposal is a very foolhardy risk management strategy.

The answer to an existential risk, as any corporate investment strategist will tell you, is to diversify. In government terms that means localisation and federation, not centralisation and unification. Fortunately, this seems to be exactly what is now happening in global politics with Brexit and other bids to break down the European 'superstate', a resurgence of federalism and even calls for secession ('Calexit') in the United States, and the formation of new bilateral and multi-lateral political and trade alliances to replace the traditional transnational blocs.

Hawking is right to be concerned about the future of humanity. I, too, think we should colonise (and terraform) Mars and even Venus. This is part of a prudent risk management strategy for mankind. But I don't think we should trust strong, centralised government. This is, to use another analogy, putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

1 comment:

paul scott said...

Yes, Government authority. Something has to be done. As soon as I am King, I am putting you in charge of the NAT Government. You have more brains than all the rest of them together. I want this Co-Governance nonsense fixed up straight away.
Pinker is the most intellectual of the socio-genetic theorists, Ridley the best, and Dwkins wanted the best out of three on Brexit.