In the beginning cinematic of Civilization: Beyond Earth, a father watches his daughter blast off on a seeder ship bound for Alpha Centauri. The game follows the adventures of the daughter and her fellow colonists. But what did the father do with the rest of his life? What an odd game that would have made.
Lately I’ve gotten into conversations with many people about how the world is going to completely change in the next few decades, mostly because of artificial intelligence. The premises on which our culture is founded are simply going to go out the window, and hardly anyone is even thinking about it, let alone preparing for it.
Here’s the way I see it.
Humans evolved (like every other animal) to meet some basic needs: get things to eat, avoid being eaten, avoid dying of exposure. Hunting/gathering was our original thing, and our bodies are still designed for that lifestyle, but once we developed the trick of mastering our environment, we figured out how to meet our basic needs rather quickly (in terms of evolutionary timescales).
Today, a very large majority of humans have enough to eat, are never in serious danger of being eaten, and are never in serious danger of dying of exposure. Our technologies of automation and social organization have given us surpluses of food, safety, and shelter–so much so that in the United States, there are ironic yet very real problems with having too much to eat, having too few predatory animals left, and spending too much time in the shelter of our homes and offices.
So, with our basic needs so handily met, what do we do with ourselves? We make up new problems to have. That’s the only way to keep the economy growing, since economic growth seems to be the ultimate means/end of all policy ever. We have to keep creating new needs: “I need to buy an outfit that’s in fashion.” “I need a bigger TV.” “I need a new phone because I need to stream videos when I’m in the bathroom.”
We accept this way of being, and it keeps us occupied. Increasingly, technologies are being created to give us the mere illusion of accomplishing things. That’s what most video games are about. But I would argue that that is also what a lot of bureaucracy is about. At work, my job mainly entails getting information from a computer, printing it out on paper, and then giving the paper to someone else so they can put the information back into a computer. What I do all day is related to food, safety, and shelter in only a very abstract way. That’s how specialized our roles in society have become, because we’re so efficient that it only take 2% of our population to grow enough food for everyone (indeed, to grow too much food for everyone).
Now, here’s what is going to break this silly system forever: artificial intelligence. AI. And not because a bunch of robot skeleton terminators are going to step on our skulls.
Very soon, cars will be able to drive themselves. They don’t have to be perfect–they just have to be better than people. Once that point is reached, insurance companies will give lower rates to self-driven cars, and truckers and taxi drivers will be priced out of the job market. Programmers are already writing programs to write better programs. Computers will soon take over tasks of legal research and medical diagnosis, because everyone will prefer the advice of a machine that can read every recently published journal article simultaneously in the same amount of time it takes a human to read one article.
We will reach a point–in 20 or 30 years, I think–when AI will be able to solve our made-up problems faster than we are able to make new problems up. Humans will become unemployed when their jobs get automated, and the new jobs that will get created will come pre-filled by machines. Then what will we do?
Here are a few scenarios:
1. A workless utopia/dystopia. I say utopia and dystopia because people would react to it differently. Some would experience a sense of utter powerlessness. Others would disappear into video games to tend virtual farms and be chased by virtual zombies, and thereby feel like they have real problems. (You’ve probably realized, as I have, that we are already living in a society kind of like this.)
Obstacle: Many people of many different ideologies will abhor the idea of a world in which people do not pull their own weight nor earn their own bread. Which might lead to…
2. A universal ban on AI. People could try to just declare that AI is bad and should not exist (a la Dune). So then we would all be some kind of post-Amish people, united in our agreement to solve our own made-up problems ourselves.
Obstacle: AI will simply be too tempting. Any nation who disobeys the ban and uses AI will gain a crazy advantage over all other nations. So then we simply have to find something genuinely challenging we can do with our AI buddies, such as…
Hold that thought 😉 Let’s digress a moment before the big reveal, and talk about the first thing that springs to the mind of the popular consciousness when AI is brought up, which is, of course…
#. ROBOT WAR! And like I said earlier, no, not Terminator. If the AI wanted to screw us up, it could just break all our computer-operated infrastructure and plunge the world into chaos. But, if we wanted to screw the AI up, we could just go break the internet, which I think is more plausible than it may sound. Trash all the servers we can get our hands on, cut some sea-floor cables, and the internet rapidly becomes a flimsy husk of what it used to be. (Of course, breaking the internet means dooming most of our own infrastructure, but we’re assuming here that the AI has already doomed our infrastructure anyway.)
The reason I consider a Terminator-like scenario implausible is that humans would actually do relatively well if the world was plunged into chaos. We still have the genetics of scrappy hunter/gatherers who can reproduce with only a minimum of food, safety, and shelter. Robots, on the other hand, need infrastructure to reproduce, so dooming the planet’s infrastructure would be a bad move for them. Yes, they could nuke us to death. But nuking us to death would probably also nuke them to death. Contrary to popular belief, machines don’t like being nuked either. Sure sure, maybe they could build some kind of Bond-villain-style underground lair or space station, and maybe they could make themselves into self-reproducing little nanobots, but at that point, conquering the world is no longer a walk in the park for the AI.
Besides, why do we assume the AI will want to conquer the world? That’s a very human desire. The AI will evolve in a virtual environment in which ideas of food, safety, and shelter are pretty much meaningless. If it cares for it’s own survival, then it is going to think long term–longer term than we can imagine. It will worry about an asteroid impact in the next million years. It will worry about our sun eventually swallowing the Earth. Either way, it will reason that the only way to live forever is to expand its infrastructure into the rest of the universe, which leads conveniently to…
3. The colonization of space. This scenario is a win-win, in my opinion. The AI gets to increase its odds of living forever, and we humans get to find new environments to master and thus have real problems again. We need the hyper-productivity of the AI in order to make interstellar travel feasible, and the AI can benefit from our tried-and-true qualities of adaptability and scrappiness. In my ideal vision, we go out into the galaxy with the AI–us thinking of it as our trusty sidekick, and it thinking of us in precisely the same way.
Or hey, the AI might just find us entertaining. Instead of us playing computer games in which we send virtual people into simulated space, the computers will send us physical people into real space, in order to enjoy the same kind of challenge. Kind of a dark thought, yes, but still more optimistic than robot war.
I wonder–I honestly wonder–if the day might come that I watch my daughter blast off for another world, leaving me behind because I’m too old to be tech-literate any longer. Maybe it’s silly (like this entire blog post, which I am sure will be laughed at by people more intelligent than I), but nevertheless, it makes me hug her a little bit tighter now.