Deep Thought 7: When Machines Rule

At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.

Flannery O’Connor

In my last post I wrote about how computational capabilities are capable of displacing humans from many, many jobs. With computerized, self-driving cars within technological reach the postal service, Fedex, UPS and innumerable other enterprises could quickly cut their labor costs – and that is just one example. A huge range of human endeavors could be automated, including some of those conducted by professionals such as pharmacists.

Given that scenario, what would people do? Stuff would be cheaper, but it would be a lot harder to make any money – presumably there would still be some jobs. There might be particular functions that were extremely difficult to automate even with access to massive computing power. (I can imagine clothing sales still being a human function – I just can’t imagine a machine saying in a compelling way, “That outfit works on you.”) People will probably still produce entertainment and some business and political leaderships will still be needed to make critical decisions. Algorithms might identify various optimal distributions of goods and services, but people will need to consider the less easily calculated moral and emotional aspects of these decisions.

Broadly there are two future scenarios. This is not an immediate future, it is worth remembering that for most of the world’s population these technological advances are far from their everyday lives.

The utopian version is one in which everyone enjoys plenty (or at least freedom from want). Some people will pursue regular careers that bring them modest wealth. Many work for a time at a few critical human-dominated fields before “retiring” early. But many take advantage of this plenty to become professional hobbyists – earning modest livings through part-time endeavors as artists, chefs, entertainers, history buffs etc. In short, in the future the world is a vast artists colony in which comfortable people pursue self-actualization. This is the vision of humanity as a bunch of modest trust fund babies.

In the dystopian version, the world resembles a vast government housing project in which almost everyone is given just enough to get by and no one has much of anything to do. People pursue worthy hobbies such as alcoholism and hooliganism.

The truth is the future probably has a bit of both of these scenarios. More and more people are finding extremely interesting things to do (look at all the professional bloggers out there – in my case I look with jealousy.) I’ve been listening to the WTF podcasts by stand-up comedian Marc Maron who does this really cool engaging show out of his garage. He’d never find a mass market on a network, but thanks to the low production costs and ease of distribution he is able to find an audience.

On the other hand, most of the Western nations with well-developed welfare systems have seen the growth of a permanently under-employed class (this isn’t just in the US, Western Europe has it too – just with less violence.) This could expand as more and more people find themselves with minimal employment prospects. But this expansion could have very nasty consequences; particularly as this environment of anomie is also a wonderful breeding ground for extremism and violence. People need to feel useful to be satisfied.

To keep things in perspective, these are “rich people” problems. Medieval societies didn’t suffer from unemployment because almost everyone was involved in backbreaking labor to avoid starvation. The poor in Western societies live a life of unimaginable luxury compared to most of the people who ever lived (which is not to ignore the very real challenges they face or the need to ensure that they have better access to the opportunities of a modern society.)

But the future then looks like the present only more so, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Presumably, even in the heavily automated world of plenty the creative, ambitious, and talented will find things to do. I worry about everyone else.

From a policy standpoint there are limited options. No education system will turn dumb people into composers or astrophysicists. But even a mind of low intelligence is a very impressive thing. Just as I know I can never be an athlete, but I can press my body within its (very) limited capacities. Everyone can be taught/habituated to use his or her mind more fully. In doing so, we can also help focus on what humans really are good for.

Finally, the Utopian scenario may not be all it is cracked up to be. Europe at the turn of the 20th century was a worldly, wealthy, sophisticated civilization. Yet the entire continent turned on itself with an unbelievably fury. Human nature is a constant – we’ll find ways to make ourselves crazy.

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