Human beings and the next revolution: automation

“Can you believe people actually used to work?”

Some day in the not-too-distance future, people will say words like these.

There is a moment in humanity’s future that is approaching. And in this moment in time, people will no longer have careers or work full-time jobs.
A common thread of argument is that “there will always be work for people to do.” To some degree, this may be true. But such optimism seems misguided if one can envision the potential for intelligent computers to surpass the abilities of mankind in all but few domains. Sure, a niche of humanity will work. But make no mistake, the majority will be unemployed, replaced by machines more efficient than they could ever be.

The problem is that it’s hard to predict what will happen with artificial intelligence, and thus hard to predict how long this moment will last. There are at least two extreme outcomes to consider, and an infinite number of possibilities in between.

We do not know how rapidly artificial intelligence will progress. On one hand, there’s a chance that the time between the creation of the first machine with human-level general intelligence and the singularity will be infinitesimally small. That is, is the rate of advancement in artificial intelligence will be so great that shortly after developing such an AI, that very same AI will begin to make its own advancements with impeccable speed and success. Such an AI might modify itself, leading to a superintelligent being that wrestles control from and enslaves mankind. Clearly, such an outcome is more concerning than the unemployment rate.

Or perhaps we just merge with machines and live happily ever after.

But another real possibility is that we don’t reach such a level in artificial intelligence or biotechnology for a long time. And during that lengthy period of time, we continue to improve current methods of machine learning, computer vision, robotics, and computer reasoning to a point where computers and robots are a cheaper and superior option for most work-related tasks. In some ways, although this scenario is less horror film-esque than the one described above, it’s just as disconcerting because it raises a question: what value will human beings have in such a world?

Simply put, we will need to radically change the way we perceive human value, or we could find ourselves living in a very dystopian reality.

Part of this is dealing with the social challenges that await us. The most paramount of these will be establishing systems that can provide resources to the masses who can no longer reasonably be expected to support themselves. Fortunately, companies like YC are experimenting with approaches to basic income. There is a lot of fear about communism and socialism, but devout capitalists should try to understand that mass poverty and homelessness are the likely alternative. Fortunately, advances in technology also make it more likely that we can provide food, housing, energy, and transportation to people. It is unlikely that technology will be the bottleneck. Rather, poorly designed policies and electing the wrong types of people to positions of power will cause the most friction here.

This coming era can be a high point for humanity. There is a real opportunity to reduce human suffering and free people from something they’ve been chained to: work. Freed from the slavery of having to earn an income, we’d be living in a truly new age — potentially a utopian one. The results of such a thing seem impossible to predict completely, but I look forward to seeing what people can do without such a burden.

I just hope we remain aware of the path we are taking. Now is not the time to misstep.

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