Useless People

Another post from 2017 moved here from a no-longer-existing blog….

I’ve been reading a fascinating book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari.

The book covers many things, and one of the things Harari talks about that fascinates me—and worries me—is what might happen to regular people as more and more things are done by algorithms.

Harari very sensibly talks about algorithms rather than AI, which we often associate with consciousness. As he stresses, algorithms are not conscious yet they are able to do more and more things that we once thought were the domain of human intelligence and consciousness.

Algorithms can already drive cars better than most people, recognize faces better than most people, diagnose cancer better than most doctors, write music that is indistinguishable from human-composed music, and beat the best human players at chess and GO.

And algorithms are learning how to do more and more things that previously only humans could do. What happens when there are few jobs left for people? The standard answer is that there will always be jobs for people. As one profession becomes automated, other more creative professions will open up.

But as Harari says, “The most important question in twenty-first-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people….. The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking.”

What value will people have in the future? If we aren’t working and contributing to society will we have any value? If all we are doing is playing computer games, taking drugs, and having sex with robots will the elites have any interest in us?

Harari: “In the twenty-first century liberalism will have a much harder time selling itself. As the masses lose their economic importance, will the moral arguments alone be enough to protect human rights and liberties? Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends?

Already we see, at least in the US, that poor people have less value than rich people. The whole Republican effort to repeal Obamacare shows that in the eyes of one of our two major parties, it’s more important to provide benefits to the rich than to provide good health to the poor and disadvantaged.

Again, Harari: “But the age of the masses may be over, and with it the age of mass medicine. As human soldiers and workers give way to algorithms, at least some elites may conclude that there is no point in providing improved or even standard levels of health for masses of useless poor people, and it is far more sensible to focus on upgrading a handful of superhumans beyond the norm.

Will this be our future? Who knows? Harari doesn’t predict, he just talks about possibilities. However, I suspect that barring a catastrophe such as nuclear war, our future will be one where the elites pay for life extension and genetic manipulation while the unemployed or underemployed masses live increasingly insecure lives.

But can’t democracy prevent this? And will democracy in this country even continue to exist, requiring as it does an informed citizenry? So far the elites have very successfully prevented class warfare, instead persuading the masses to follow the politics of resentment against immigrants and their “undeserving” neighbors. A system of lies, truly “fake news”, and the strange belief that truth is whatever we want it to be, keeps people voting for the benefit of the elites and against their own interests.

In other words, who knows what will happen in the future? Technological change is happening so fast that politicians can’t keep up with it, and society changes in ways that are hard to predict.

In the meantime, read Homo Deus for all its fascinating thoughts on where we are, how we got here, how things change, and what the future might look like.

Links and Other Clicks

Homo Deus at Amazon. Also available in e-book and audio format on Overdrive at your local library (or at least at my local library).

How America Lost its Mind. A great article about our post-truth era and how we got here.

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