There are two things on this blog that I write about frequently: technology/artificial intelligence and economics. How are the two really related, and what does their relationship mean for us humans caught in the middle? As technology improves, it seems that all current economic models are destined to fail, and we’ll see why in a moment.
First, let’s take a look at how things were done in the past, and how they’re done currently. Before the advent of modern technology–the use of electricity and computers–all work was done by human labor. This labor was rewarded with currency, something that represented the value of the labor provided. This currency could be used to purchase goods, etc.
And then technology came along. We all know what automation did to factory work. It was easy to replace human workers with machinery. And that’s exactly what happened. More and more, technology took over certain human functions. And that leads us to now.
Currently, certain tasks are “safe” from being taken over by machines. Jobs that require creativity, judgement, complex thinking or physical coordination, etc. are traditionally thought of as not executable by machines. And so the economy was retooled, people were retrained, and the standard person-performs-labor-receives-money-for-labor- purchases-goods-with-money cycle continues. But is this sustainable?
The answer is no, not at the rate at which technology is progressing.
It turns out that machines don’t need true artificial intelligence to perform tasks traditionally done by human beings. They only need enough memory and a fast enough processor to do one thing really well. Like the self-driving car that Google is working on. Or like the quantum computers that many companies (like Google) are working on and making advances in every year.
Computers can drive cars. Fine. But can they learn? You bet they can. In fact, a computer vision program recently outperformed a group of humans in identifying handwritten characters based on a single example. From the article:
The program is capable of quickly learning the characters in a range of languages and generalizing from what it has learned. The authors suggest this capability is similar to the way humans learn and understand concepts.
This is important for one huge reason. Namely, it shows that in order to make human work obsolete, machines do not need to achieve true artificial intelligence or become self-aware or even be as smart as humans. They simply need to replicate certain aspects of the human brain, which is itself a sophisticated biological machine.
And machines can now do that. Self-driving cars are an example, and this new ability that machines have to learn visual symbols and then apply them generally and broadly only means that machines that work by using visual recognition can now perform that with some degree of sophistication that rivals the human brain. And let’s not forget that machines can already “hear” and respond to audio cues.
Object recognition and application is important because that would mean that machines could do a variety of other things besides drive: they could cook, clean, and even do something as complex as perform surgery if they were able to visually learn what objects are and to use that knowledge in varying situations.
And that takes us back to human beings. At that point, where do we fit into the scheme of things? Machines already check your groceries, and it’s only a matter of time before they can drive your car for you. Software can do your taxes. Imagine if machines could indeed cook. What would that do to the service industry? Imagine if they could diagnose and treat an illness. That doesn’t seem like something a machine could do, but if they could visually recognize objects and symbols? Then there’s no reason why it could follow a simple clinical pathway just like human clinicians do.
Is it inevitable that this happens, though? That machines take over increasingly complex human tasks? Well, it initially makes all sorts of sense from a business standpoint. You don’t have to pay machines. They don’t need vacations. They never call out sick. They can work 24/7/365. Machine workers make all sorts of sense.
Until suddenly there are too many people who are out of work and are unable to pump money back into the businesses. After all, if machines are performing all the labor, it means humans aren’t, which means they aren’t earning wages. So we’re faced with a few choices here.
We could stop development of artificial and machine intelligence, thus ensuring that human labor is never obsolete. But that seems unlikely when higher profit margins are tantalizingly within reach of businesses.
We could give everyone a basic wage. That would keep the economy going, certainly. And if technology continues to advance and businesses take advantage of those advances, that’s probably going to need to be an intermediate step.
Fully embracing technological advances would inevitably lead to something else: simply doing away with money. After all, if machines could perform all of the services and production necessary to provide for humans, why not let them? That’s eventually what the choice will be: do we suppress technology so that humans can continue to perform repetitive tasks in exchange for money, or do we let the machines produce what human beings need, making it so that we didn’t have to do the repetitive tasks?
“But people like to work!”
I can already hear people screaming this at their monitors. And I don’t disagree. But if machines could perform all of our day jobs, that doesn’t mean we’d all sit around in our underwear staring at the wall all day. People would still be free to “work.” The difference is that they could work on whatever they wanted. They would be free to learn and indulge in whatever they were curious or passionate about.
Always wanted to become a concert pianist, but didn’t have the time to master it? Well, you do now! Always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but couldn’t take 6 months off work? The machines got it covered, go for it! Never got around to learning Chinese? Do it! But we aren’t limited to leisure activities.
Want to study the ocean? Go for it, the machines can even build you a submarine. Or the machines could build you a telescope so you can look at the stars. Or a microscope so that you could study cellular biology. You can learn and study whatever you want, because human labor is no longer needed. If you need something, you simply ask a machine for it and there it is. That’s the basis of a resource economy–goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt.
I believe that’s what is eventually going to happen. I can’t say when, but I’d be willing to bet it will be a lot sooner than most people think. And given the choice between continuing to work tedious and monotonous jobs or being free to enjoy their time and relationships and intellectual indulgences without sacrificing quality of life, I’d be also be willing to bet that most people would choose the latter.
It’s almost a question of morality or ethics: if we had the technological ability to allow humans to choose whether or not servitude and debt were necessary, is it wrong to withhold that? Put another way: once machines can do the work of humans, is the current economic system even necessary, does it continue to provide us with a net benefit? Because it seems that currently a lot of people are forced to make choices: do something they enjoy or something that pays the bills? Take a job that pays more but has more stress because they have a mortgage and student loans? Sacrifice time with the family to earn more money to provide for said family? Take jobs that are horrible for their health because they make us sedentary or are hazardous and dangerous? But what if technology could absolve all of that? What if technology could shoulder all of the responsibilities and workings of an economy, mitigating its negative effects?
If that sounds like the stuff of science fiction, I’d cautiously say that once upon a time people thought that airplanes, submarines, telephones, and televisions were the stuff of science fiction. We humans have a knack for turning what’s in our imaginations into a reality.