What will survive the rise of automation?
I’m linking to the video that first inspired me to talk about this. You should give it a watch. There are some interesting points raised in it (as is true with anything CGP Grey makes). We are entering into a new paradigm shift that has never been seen before in any fashion. You might think that that is what every generation says but this kind of leap is far greater than any before. We’ve gone from the relative same for thousands of years to an acceleration that threatens our own survival as a society.
From horses to landing on the moon in the span of a single human lifetime. Our weapons went from gunpowder to leveling entire cities in nuclear hellfire. Our business went from hand to hand transactions to hundreds of thousands (400K) transactions every second. Everything is moving at breakneck speed except for the policies that survive on it all. This is a very very bad thing and is going to lead to some kind of terminal failure of the system.
But what IS the system? That’s kind of a vague conspiracy theory sounding term isn’t it? The system in this case is the “work for life” model that we’ve used for thousands of years now. Sometimes that work was optional, sometimes it was forced, but in all cases you worked or you died. In the past we’ve seen technology advance and make work more efficient. In some cases it outmoded humans but generally that outmoding resulted in new jobs. Sometimes the changes were profound (like the cotton gin causing a revitalization of the slave trade).
CGP Grey notes that with the arrival of automated cars in the next few years we are going to see a huge shift in that industry. Millions of jobs will be instantly outmoded. Where are those millions of people going to find work? There just aren’t jobs available to take the brunt of that burden. The system of work for life worked before because there was always enough work. Baby boomers especially have trouble separating this past reality with the modern one. After WWII there was a huge boon of jobs for people. Additionally you gave grants to the people who came back from the war. They had great luxuries handed to them (though from great sacrifice). Their kids ended up profiting from this new golden age exceptionally well. Unfortunately they didn’t have to suffer for that profit.
What came then was a generation unaware of what is necessary to create a world like the one they lived in. Partially their fault but also because the world was, and is, changing dramatically. Jobs are no longer being created at the rate that people are. Folks that used to die, or at the very least retire, are not doing that as fast as before. The workforce is both aging and simultaneously shrinking.
It used to take hundreds of thousands of people to make a Fortune 500 company. Now it takes a few thousand, at most. More and more wealth is not just going to fewer people but it is also going to fewer businesses.
This shift is not always going to be catastrophic. There will come a point when nations realize the old model is dead and a new model must rise to take its place. But whether that comes by nationwide unemployment or civil unrest remains to be seen. If there is nobody left to buy your products there isn’t much reason to make them, automated or not. That likely pokes at the heart of the issue. The notion of commerce.
Star Trek likely had it right for reasons that we didn’t grasp at the time of its release. The future is one lacking in business not because people become altruistic and separate from it. It is a currency less universe because it must be. An automated future cannot supply the jobs, to supply the money, to buy the products that are created by the automation. You could argue that people will be needed to repair the robots or to produce the robots but both of these things can (and will) be equally automated.
You could argue that creative jobs will replace these other jobs but you have another problem. Every single person would need to be writing, painting, singing, or whatever. 7.7 billion people all creating constantly because the alternative is starvation. You would also need money to get the materials necessary to produce your craft. Then have connections to the devices needed to distribute it. Additionally you’d need to hope the distribution model is not controlled by a company like apple. Then we have the fact that creative arts are not quite as tangible as a carrot. They don’t have an “intrinsic” value (where I’d argue water and food does).
People will likely shift to creating things but even that will start to see interesting shifts. Procedural generation will get good enough in the next 50 years to rival anything people are writing. Imagine the monkey typewriter but on the scale of trillions of monkeys all producing simultaneously. You could automate creativity on a scale that is entirely unfathomable.
Our future will survive only once there is a dramatic paradigm shift. In the short term it will be agonizing and likely cause the death of some very powerful people [as these things often do]. But once that point is passed we’ll be looking at the world of Star Trek. Machines building machines, repairing machines, and taking care of all the tasks that humans would rather not.
I’m still hesitant to believe that AI will terminate us all. I’m willing to bet the vast majority of human anguish will still come from other humans.