For as long as I can remember, we have been promised that the future is just around the corner. From the Jetsons to Tomorrow’s World I have been perpetually convinced that this time next year we will be wearing foil suits and have dutiful robots scuttling along at heel ready to tend to our every whim. They were wrong, but right now we do seem to be on the verge of something big, it’s all very exciting but it does pose a number of interesting, and rather important choices.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is here, it has been for a while. Have you ever noticed how accurate Amazon is when it sends recommendations to you? My phone tells me to check in for a flight that I never told it about, it tells me where I have parked the car, even though I didn’t tell it I was even in a car, You Tube serves me up stuff I didn’t even know I was interested in, but it knows me better than I know myself. AI is checking medical tests better than a human can, it’s keeping an eye on your finances to spot fraud, and this is just the start.
In their basic form, a human is a fortuitous mixture of brain power and dexterity, it has worked very well for us so far, but as technological development races ahead we are likely to be second best very, very soon. Driverless cars and trucks are really only a few years away, drone deliveries to your house the same. Lawyers are using AI in simple legal interpretations. The CEO of US investment bank State Street said recently that 20% of human tasks in their organisation will be replaced by AI es early as 2020, only three years away.
In short in the very near future there is almost nothing we do that can’t be replaced, or at least changed significantly by intelligent machines or algorithms. Technologies that don’t get bored or tired, or make many mistakes, and can work faster, better and longer than you or I can, or are inclined to.
This worries many of the big names, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Steve Wosniak and Stephen Hawking have all issued warnings that AI could be a force for good, ending poverty, climate change and disease, or ill. Think Arnold Swartzenegger’s terminator and you are not far wrong.
Another equally pressing question is, what are we all going to do for a living when our jobs are done for us?
It’s a question that mankind has faced before, and largely got wrong. This time we have a brief period of thinking time to get it right. Since the very start industrial revolution manual labour has been replaced by machines, from spinning wheels to ploughs, electricity to computers we have had the opportunity to produce more, by doing less. Except we haven’t, we have just chosen to do more and more and more. Where did all that leisure time we were promised go? Human nature has taken over and instead of working a three hour day and going home for sleep, or lunch, or learn to paint, we have decided to work longer and longer hours, earn more and consume like crazy. Our world is full up of stuff that we don’t really need, but has soaked up all this extra income we have earned doing work that doesn’t really need to be done.
Society needs to make sure that the coming century doesn’t end up with 90% of people unemployed and broke while the bosses and innovators shovel up the profits. Get ready for FALC, Fully Automated Leisure Communism. It’s a simple idea, pay everyone a decent ‘middle class’ wage, but don’t compel them to go to work. Radical, but it already has received some serious thought. Finland and Holland are already holding limited trials, and Switzerland held a referendum last summer over whether to pay every citizen around 2,000 Euros a month for doing nothing, but they threw it out by a large majority.
It sounds a little too good to be true, but humans have been conditioned since we came down from the trees that hard work and education will tangibly improve our lives. How radical will the change to our societies and to our mentalities be if we are effectively retired from birth? We may no longer have to educate ourselves for work, but for pleasure. It’s an interesting problem, and one that we are going to have to resolve really rather soon. Put me down for a personal R2D2 and a twenty year university degree in wine appreciation.
Phill McCoffers – Islander February 2017.