The rapid adoption of technology has changed human society in profound ways, yet no technology has upset things as much as Artificial Intelligence promises to. The predictions for what AI will do range from causing massive unemployment, creating unkillable weapon platforms, and going rogue and enslaving the human race. But I don’t think that some of that is likely. Instead, I see the arrival of AI as an opportunity to make life better for nearly all people, instead of a select few. Let me explain.
It is not human society that has progressed so much as it is technology that has progressed and pulled human society along with it. Despite the constant influx of new methods and the vast leverage that technology provides, people are still stuck in the same old ways of doing things. Technology just allows them to do more with less. So there has been no reason to change, until now.
Previously, technology enhanced people’s abilities, not replaced them. Yes, individual people have been replaced by the adoption of some new piece of technology, but on the whole, humans were still required for the fulfillment of nearly all tasks. And as such, society has kept itself tied to this idea that people need to work to be a part of society. The whole economic machine is predicated on the idea of producers and consumers. Let’s look at how this works and what it has led to.
First off, we live in an incredibly consumeristic society, one that sustains itself through the life blood of the walking dead. Work has become the primary directive for people. Not purpose. Not contribution. Work. Work has expanded to fill most of people’s lives. Some people enjoy it, but most do not. And since these jobs are pointless and meaningless to these people, and people are working longer hours than ever before in history, their minds and souls deaden over time. In order to have some relief from this, they turn to buying stuff for their off hours. Apps, gadgets, appliances and similar. Objects that they are unlikely to buy if they were not worked into this state.
The people working to provide these objects also work long hours in order to meet demand, leading to them also requiring entertainment. And so the whole system turns in on itself, leading everyone to buy from each other and money circulates around. Fast forward this model to today and we have the current situation, people making stuff to sell to each other so that they can have something mindless to do when they aren’t making the stuff they sell to each other.
So far, so bad. We now have a society of people existing in order for them to sell pointless crap to each other. But let’s take it a step further. Let’s remove their humanity. Now, these people are faceless cogs in the system. If one breaks (dies, goes insane, needs too many operations for a medical problem), just replace it. Get another cog, slip it in. All carries on as before. The standard of the day is how productive one can be. How much can you get done. This leads to the gig economy with the accompanying celebration of working yourself to death, along with life hacks.
As troublesome as this is, it could still sustain itself. That is until we add in artificial intelligence, robots, and extensive automation. That is going to replace a lot of people and wipe out a lot of jobs. Yes, some new jobs will be created as a result. Jobs that we have no conception of at this moment in time. But most of these jobs are going to be highly skilled positions, given the technology that has arisen to make them possible.
People like to point out that the Industrial Revolution didn’t erase work, it transformed it into something else. When cars started replacing horses, farriers and blacksmiths could be re-tasked as mechanics. Both jobs involved working with their hands. But what are you going to do with a lot of the people that will be replaced in the near future? Teach them to code?
As an example, jobs involving driving make up something like one-tenth to one-fifth of all the jobs on the planet. When self-driving cars and trucks come out and replace most of them, what are they going to do? A lot of them became drivers because they weren’t capable or in the situation to do anything else. And these people aren’t going to go away.
Now there is a whole class of people who are out of jobs, and no longer getting paid. Yet the robots who replaced them will continue to make the goods as before. They might even make more of them. Yet a large part of the consumer market will suddenly not have the money to buy this stuff. So who will?
Half the workforce is out of a job. There are only so many rich people around. If society went along this path, there would be eventual economic and systemic collapse.
Related to this is the issue that we are working more and more into opposition of human nature, to the point where we will be dispensing away with it entirely. Capitalism worked because it was the system that was most in line with human nature. People had the opportunity to put in hard work, effort, and ideas, and the marketplace would test them out and reward them for it. But we are moving from that.
When robots replace people there won’t be much opportunity for people to put in hard work, except in creative fields. Nassim Taleb says that artisans and craftsmen will once again rise to prominence as what they create will be unique and not the same as everything else that was mass produced at the mechanical forge. But again, who is going to buy it? Not as many people as today, that’s for sure.
The solution to this that more and more people are thinking about is to institute a Universal Basic Income. The ideal that has been expressed in science fiction is that once humanity is freed from the shackles of work we will be free to develop our minds and capabilities. We would turn to self-education as a means of improving body, mind, and soul, and contribute to society in that fashion. But there are a few problems with this.
Everyone assumes that people will rise to their higher natures in the case of Universal Basic Income or a similar solution. That’s not likely to happen. It seems that people need a purpose to work towards, whether that be a job, providing for a family, raising children, or even unlocking the deepest mysteries of the cosmos. Take that away, and their lives collapse around this void. Jordan Peterson says that people are draft animals, they have to have something to push and pull against. They’re like huskies, only happy when they are pulling a sleigh. Whatever this purpose is, it infuses their lives with meaning. Take it away and their lives lose all meaning, and eventually, all hope. This is how a lot of people turn to drugs, a way to numb the pain that a lack of purpose brings.
In the absence of work and with the provision of resources, some people will rise to the challenge and work on improving and educating themselves, applying themselves to the pursuit of art or science, but these are the types of people that will find a job for themselves in this new reality anyway. It’s the rest that concern me.
A lot of people today have turned to various forms of escapism in order to escape the meaninglessness that is their lives. As it is, our culture has succumbed to a loss of definite optimism, as defined by Peter Thiel in Zero To One. Definite optimism is the idea that the future will be better than today, and it can be planned for. This leads to people taking chances and innovating, as they can see that it will have benefit to themselves and others. Take that sense away, which we have lost today, and you remove most of the capacity for innovation from society.
Now this is not all doom and gloom. I think that knowing this in advance offers us a real opportunity to change the current nature of work and society into a form that is more aligned with human nature instead of in opposition to it. It only requires a few slight shifts. How this would look I don’t know, but I can offer some suggestions.
First, continue with AI research and implementation, but change the nature of that implementation to enhancement instead of replacement. Right now, we have our brightest minds, a rare and scarce resource, working on how to replace unskilled labour, a vastly abundant resource, with computers. Instead of working on that, why not direct AI research to focus more on enhancement of human capability, the same way all previous technology has worked. Thus AI would fall more to the realm of support and enablement, instead of replacement.
Second, let’s move life back towards its natural rhythms. We have such an amount of technology available that we don’t need to work long hours any more. Shorten working hours, let people get some sunlight and go to bed at a reasonable hour, and find purpose in their lives outside of work. In order to do all this they would require more free time than they currently have available. Some people manage to achieve this today despite the challenges that they currently face, but for them to do that takes effort. It is not the default. I argue that we should move the state of society to a place where this would be the default option instead.
Third, change the nature of education. Currently, the standard education model sets people up to be drones. This worked fine during the Industrial Revolution, but we have moved beyond that. Instead, focus on nurturing creativity and imagination. These more than anything are the linchpins that allow society to progress.
The secret is to do all this in a way that doesn’t go against human nature and doesn’t impact other people’s sovereign ability to make their own judgements. I am not the arbiter of what life should be like, and neither is anybody else. So the best bet is to change the conditions of society in such a way that people have more opportunity to create their version of life for themselves, instead of today’s headlong descent into crushing conformity. If someone really wants to work long hours in order to get ahead, let them. Just don’t make it the standard for everyone. If someone feels that retiring to the woods and writing poetry is the best use of their time, things should be set up in such a way that this is a viable option for them without them being a drain on anyone else.
We have this time of opportunity now before us to change society in such a way that it is better on a deep level for most, instead of better on a surface level for some. We have the technology available, we know about the technology that is coming in to play soon. Instead of letting this unwind as it will, let us rather take a conscious effort to change it to a form that will be better for everyone in the long run.