So it seems an appropriate time to finish writing this article, which I started a while back then put aside.
In the last few months I’ve been reading a lot about Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Artificial Super-Intelligence (ASI), and robots, and how computers and robots will destroy jobs, and how we will all be able to spend our time being creative. It’s all very fascinating. And scary.
The Pessimistic Camp
The pessimistic camp worries about the future of people in a world of ASI. Some people argue that we can control AIs to care about humans, but many others are dubious. There will always be someone who wants to push the limits, bypass the safeguards, make a more competitive product, show what they can do.
As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, “As the old proverb goes, most of the damage is done by people who wish to feel themselves important. Many ambitious people find it far less scary to think about destroying the world than to think about never amounting to much of anything at all. All the people I have met who think they are going to win eternal fame through their AI projects have been like this.”
And there will always be militaries that want a more powerful and dangerous AI weapon and will do whatever they can to get it before other countries can.
I’m in the pessimistic camp.
The Optimistic Camp
I love to ponder this possibility, not because I believe I’ll live forever, but to think about the consequences.
So the first question is what happens to work if the machines take over and we live forever? Will people need to work in order to get money, or will society provide a Basic Income to everyone? Forever? (2)
If the past is any predictor of the future, the middle segment of society will be squeezed. Perhaps a few well-paid creative jobs will remain, and a lot of minimally-paid jobs. Perhaps this means that in an age of immortality many people will have to work forever at multiple minimum wage jobs in order to survive. What a dreadful thought.
But another possibility is that ASIs will simply eliminate all jobs. After all, a Super Intelligence will probably be able to do any intellectual job better than us, and devise ways to automate all manual jobs.
So ASI’s will probably make most, if not all, human work unnecessary. They will take over medicine, law, engineering. They will create robots which take over construction, plumbing, electrical work. And if we think that we will remain more creative than an ASI we are probably deluding ourselves.
But one of the things that keeps people sane is work. It provides meaning and purpose, even if we resent it and get bored by it.
As a student I worked on a construction site that was creating an oil pipeline on the Welsh coast. We worked 12/7 and everyone grumbled about the work but everyone showed up. Then some of the machinery broke. We still had to turn up (and get paid) because it might be fixed at any moment, but for 4 days we did nothing. This was when many people stopped showing up, even though this meant no pay. The boredom was worse than the work. By losing pay, people were paying to relieve their boredom.
So what happens if no one needs to work at all? If we are immortal? If we live forever?
Optimists say we’ll be free to create: to indulge in all those creative activities we would do if it weren’t for the fact that we exhaust ourselves working. I don’t believe a word of it. I don’t think most people are particularly creative. And even if they were I’d be scared: creative destruction seems to be a lot easier and more fun than creative construction.
So, mass boredom? Mass travel? Bingeing on new immersive realities created by ASIs? Watching mortal combat of criminals and lions in Coliseums? A drug drip? Sex robots? Being permanently hooked into an Ecstasy Machine?
But The Devil Makes Work for Idle Hands. There’s the possibility that people will simply start making trouble. They may want the adrenaline rush of danger. They may be driven by a need for status. They may be attracted to violent religions that promise meaning and an end to boredom. Whatever the particulars, there’s a good chance that the world could become a more violent place.
And how will society respond to people who threaten a life that would otherwise go on forever? What dire penalties would we impose? Would we go to war with other countries or religions that are threatening our citizens – and thus kill others who would otherwise live forever?
Knowing whatever they know about evolution, I doubt an ASI would consider us as more special than other life forms. So perhaps the ASIs would simply tire of our tiresome behavior and decide that humans are more trouble than they are worth.
There’s so much focus these days on the possible terrible consequences of Global Warming. But the possible terrible consequences of ASIs and the loss of jobs strike me as being a lot worse. Yet we pay almost no attention to them.
(1) I’m bored because I can’t exercise. I can’t exercise because I can’t seem to get my legs better. I had an MRI and a bone scan in Mumbai and both showed that my legs seem to be okay. But even the small amount of walking around town and sight-seeing seems to keep my legs in a state of pain and suffering. So the topic of what happens when AI puts us out of work is particularly interesting to me now. And I wasn’t bored while writing this blog post 🙂
(2) If machines can do everything why would one even need money? Maybe to buy status? Or to pay people who own resources (which would probably result in a feudal world where status and resources were inherited)?
Links and Other Clicks
Tim Urban’s AI article, part 1: The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence.
Tim Urban’s AI article, part 2: The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction.
The Wikipedia page about Basic Income.
Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat. A book by someone who is very concerned about our future when we get ASI. Here’s a review of the book.
Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. Here’s a review of the book.