PROFESSOR Stephen Hawking is out campaigning again. He’s been warning us that artificial intelligence – computers that can reason and solve problems at human level and beyond – could be “either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity”.

That is, AI will either help us solve our hardest problems in climate change and health – or it will let loose “economic disruption, autonomous weapons” and “machines that develop a will of their own, in conflict with humans”.

Now, I’m a long-standing space cadet, and have constantly-tingling antennae (and appetite) for these kinds of stories. But on my way to write this, as the autumnal trees bent over my head – the houses of Coatbridge as solid as they’ve been since my youth, people going about their usual bustle – I allowed myself a rare moment of doubt.

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Where is the disruptive future in places like this? Won’t people essentially live, work, travel, drop off at school, tend their gardens as they’ve always done, whether it’s 1970 or 2030? Should we believe the hype of the techno-futurists?

Let’s test it by putting what you see, as you go through an average urban or suburban Scottish day, to an artificial-intelligence test. How will AI change this? And that?

Well, for one thing, as I sit tapping away in the foyer of Glasgow’s CitizenM, there’s two obvious revolutions to come, right outside the window. I’m watching the buses, the cars, the taxis, the container trucks, the white vans … a constant flow of human-driven machinery.

But surely, within a decade at most, the human drivers will have generally gone? Self-driving vehicles – fitted with traffic-sensitive computers and sensors, and guided by wireless traffic systems that we already understand from our GPS apps and devices – will be dominating our roads.

At least among those enterprises which provide transportation services, the idea of sleepless, 24/7, safety-conscious robot drivers – who will inevitably also prove their worth to insurers everywhere – will be irresistibly attractive. And so a generation of de-industrialised workers, who found at least some perch in their ability to get an appropriate driving licence, will be kicked off that one, too.

I shift my gaze a few millimetres, and out on the Glasgow streets, there seems to be an answer to that crisis. It looks like a call-centre: the icon is a globe with a headset on, the slogan, “transforming passion into excellence”. Weren’t people-to-people services supposed to be what the UK would move towards, as we let slip our tedious grip on manufacturing and industry?

Yet if we were honest with ourselves, the idea of humans doing “tele-performance” in our lives is an absolute pain. How many of you recoil from answering the “unknown caller” on your phone, who – if you do answer – turns out to be some poor, pushy soul, following up a data-blip that some contract (often entirely misidentified) is up for renewal? Was this irritated exchange even necessary?

The anthropologist David Graeber would say this, and many other tele-services, fall into the category of “bullshit jobs”. Artificial intelligence is after this sector, and will almost certainly seize it.

You’ve probably used a “chatbot” online to interact with a company, and perhaps presumed that “Jared” or “Nina” was a human being? Entirely wrong. Artificially-intelligent systems like IPSoft’s Amelia are already being used by banks and local councils to understand and answer most relevant questions, either via text or real speech, with only the hardest stuff needing to be forwarded to a human being.

And those pushy calls? Aren’t half of them already robot voices when answered? Well, someone at some point will sell you an AI filter that will know you so intimately from your usage, that only stuff you’re guaranteed to need and want will get through to you (indeed it’s on its way – called Viv, from the engineers behind Apple’s Siri). So as well as the millions “delayered” from call centres, maybe add some hundreds of thousands more from marketing and advertising, as “programmatic” services remove humans from the selling loop.

So already these Glasgow streets, as I try to see them through the smart-glasses of 2030-50, are a lot more populated with working-hours idlers and strollers. This may be the consequence if we leave all employment decisions – based on the human-replacing qualities of AI – to the operations of private companies, or even cost-conscious councils and municipalities.

Whether it’s Oxford University, the OECD or the World Economic Forum making the predictions, the proportion of currently automatable jobs at the end of the next 20 years stands at between 30 and 50 per cent. Never mind the convulsions of Brexit: these are brutal, momentous numbers.

All developed societies have to ask whether we should just passively allow the profits of automation to pile up in corporate accounts.

Or whether we should reclaim some proportion of them, to support a new level of human flourishing. Particularly for those humans who have made a life (and living) from routine and repeated tasks, now increasingly taken on by AIs and robots.

There was a fascinating flash in the intellectual firmament recently. Barack Obama is chatting about AI in the pages of Wired magazine this month. “What is indisputable is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier,” notes the President, “the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated – the computers are doing a lot of the work. As a consequence, we have to make some tougher decisions.”

One of those tough decisions Obama seemed to be entertaining was that of universal basic income (“that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years”), which would be a kind of “robot dividend” to the entire society.

Universal basic income might allow a higher social floor, from which we could collectively start the long process of redefining what a “successful” job means. Should we start to value and redefine education, suggests Obama – that process that keeps humans ahead of the machines, by dint of nurturing their cognition, creativity and empathy?

His discussant, Joi Ito of MIT Media Lab, also asks if we could also revalue other models of human busy-ness – like academia or the arts – “where people have a purpose that isn’t tied directly to money.”

Now, as we all struggle daily with careers, bills, families, personal energy and health, all of this may seem like the concerns of an Olympian elite, looking down at the problem (us) from their corporate (or Presidential) suites.

This would be a massive mistake. And it’s a mistake that Scots, in particular, don’t need to make.

You know all those “softer” aspects of Scottish national progress in the last few decades – our flourishing in arts and culture, in education (school and higher levels), and in care services?

These turn out to be the distinctively “human” things we should turn our attentions to, as artificial intelligence (and other automations) steadily liberate us from unnecessary routine, and point us towards what we’re naturally best at.

Obama’s law teacher at Harvard, Roberto Unger, talking about automation in 2013, says the human mind is an “anti-machine … it has the capacity to combine everything with everything else. It enjoys the power to achieve insight, by transgressing its own presuppositions, by defying its own methods. What we might call imagination.”

In the midst of our current grind towards national sovereignty, let’s occasionally remind ourselves what a wise, balanced, self-aware society could achieve, in this tumultuous century.

A nation that put the human imagination front and centre – in order to harness and deploy these powerful artificial intelligences, advancing on us like a seawall – would be a small and shining glory.