Will it be Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk who is proved right on space exploration?

There are both optimistic and pessimistic visions of our future in space.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In the opening pages of his seminal 1988 work A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking has a cause for concern. “It has certainly been true in the past that what we call intelligence and scientific discovery have conveyed a survival advantage. It is not so clear that this is still the case: our scientific discoveries may well destroy us all, and even if they don’t, a complete unified theory may not make much difference to our chances of survival.”

The search for a singular theory that explains the cosmos, our place in it, where we are going, and why we are here troubles the professor. As scientists continue to come up short in their efforts to explain the grander reality of the universe, while contending with the development of technology at an inconceivably fast rate, the overarching feeling towards the future is one of anxiety, it seems.

It should be of no surprise to hear then, that Hawking’s anxieties have grown; so much so that he believes the human race must leave Earth and find a new planetary home within the next 100 years. Speaking at The Royal Society in London ahead of Starmus IV, a science and music festival set to take place next month in Trondheim, Norway, the professor said: “I strongly believe we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation. We are running out of space on Earth and we need to break through technological limitations preventing us living elsewhere in the universe.”

The professor has previously stated that we need to leave planet Earth within the next 1,000 years, but his recent estimation of 100 years adds a new layer of urgency to his claims.

He will expand on this issue in Trondheim, accompanied by the likes of Buzz Aldrin and various Nobel Prize winners, some of who are thought to share this belief. Viewers of the BBC’s new series Tomorrow’s World too will find these remarks reiterated by Hawking. For many, it may seem inconceivable to leave our planetary abode so soon, if at all. It must therefore be asked: is the concern warranted?

A central issue cited by Hawking is climate change, not least because of the overwhelming evidence pointing towards global warming, but also because of the anti-science movement that takes climate change to be a hoax. US President Donald Trump’s administration has repeatedly threatened withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – a move that, if carried through, would severely hamper the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature rises this century at “well below 2 degrees Celsius”.

However, Nobel Laureate Edvard Moser, who was also present at The Royal Society, may have succinctly summed up the appropriate response to climate change deniers. Speaking on the critical importance of clear science communication, Moser said: “I think what it comes down to is explaining how the data of climate change has been collected and how the scientific process works, and how data is tested over and over again and I think it’s an educational job.”

At a time when establishment ideas and opinions are under scrutiny, Moser’s focus on education is perhaps what the professor too would like to encourage within public discourse. “You have to explain to the public how science works,” said Moser.

And what of artificial intelligence? At various times, Hawking has deemed the rise of artificial intelligence an existential threat. Autonomous robots may prove to be more efficient than humans in certain capacities, with the automation of factories making people redundant an oft-referred to indicator of this. “The rise of powerful AI will either be the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity. We do not yet know which,” Hawking has said.

But there is a third option, one in which artificial intelligence doesn’t take up a Manichean good or evil position. Instead, it continues on as a tool for societal and cultural evolution. Indeed, it is the unprecedented development of AI and other technologies that will make Hawking’s desire of multi-planetary life a pragmatic possibility.

This brings me to his contention that “we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation”. Though the recent discovery of Earth-like exoplanets, particularly those orbiting the dwarf star Trappist-1, has fuelled some speculation about the possibility of life beyond the Solar System, the most obvious “Planet B” for humanity has been Mars. Hawking himself has referred to it as “the obvious next target”.

The most notable mission to take humans to Mars comes from Space X’s Elon Musk, whose Interplanetary Transport System hopes to take a million people to the red planet within the next 20 years. But it seems Musk’s ambitions to make the human race a space-faring civilisation come from a slightly different place to that of Hawking’s.

In a recent conversation with TED’s Head Curator Chris Anderson, Musk was probed on why we need to build a city on Mars. “If the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species, I find that incredibly depressing,” he said.  Depressing indeed. Journeying to Mars will not only increase the likelihood of humanity’s survival, but it will also offer the chance to search for extra-terrestrial life. The development of artificial intelligence can support our desires to create new colonies and food sources on Mars, to understand terrain other than our own and to move one step closer to knowing whether we are truly alone in space.

Hawking’s pessimism is understandable. The planet is taking on a number of new challenges that it is yet to overcome: overpopulation, antibiotic resistance, overdue asteroid strikes, terrorism, resource depletion and more. The list of threats may be endless.

What cannot be allowed to happen is for humanity to succumb to that pessimism and fear. Of course, these issues will take a lifetime to counter, and many of Hawking’s contemporaries understand this and share a deep concern for the future of the planet. But as the innovators and predictors of the future, it is the scientists who must maintain optimism about the world that humans can create for themselves. As Musk points out, “it’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing”.

In a hundred years time, we may still be searching for a unified theory of the universe. We most probably will have a new set of challenges to face. But with a radical rethink of scientific education and inspiration, perhaps one day the human race will feel a lot more optimistic about its future on two planets.