Tech changes — primarily artificial intelligence and robotics — are hollowing out our society, shrinking the middle class. The disruption is quickly going to become worse…much worse. Our constitutional political system and our market economy are predicated on a healthy, robust middle class. It’s disappearance within the next several years to a decade will have inevitable profound, disruptive social, political and economic impact.
A relatively small number of people —primarily experts in the AI field —are aware of the force and likely effect of this change, and they are, for the most part, talking among themselves, as if the future is theirs to determine. They are ill equipped to think through the consequences and help society prepare.
Many already have presumptions about a post-human or trans-human future, with remnant humans as zoo-kept animals at one extreme or, at the other, humans transformed into a range of cyborg possibilities. These AI experts are devoting themselves to realizing that future. I suspect their presumptions might not be shared with a large portion of our society, at least at present.
Perhaps, they can indeed persuade majorities of populaces, but political campaigning is not what they do nor is it what they want to do. Consequently, no one in the field is undertaking the necessary campaigns (though there are some, such as Max Tegmark and Elon Musk who are doing major good and helpful works. Musk’s efforts hint at such a campaign, but go no further).
Our politicians do not see the immediacy of the issues, or if they do, they are not willing to articulate or face them. So far, their is only the quixotic presidential campaign of Andrew Yang. (Let me know if I’m missing someone here). Why risk the ridicule that even Elon Musk has endured? Besides, their track record dealing with critical long-term issues is to kick the can down the road — witness, social security reform or North Korea.
This time there is no time.
Most economists tend to take the safe road in looking to the future. Markets, they say, have always managed to generate new employment to replace jobs displaced by technological change. Look at agriculture! From 1900 to 2000, employment dropped from 40+% to less than 4%. While their analysis recognizes it, their speculative outlooks side-step or ignore what is different this time — exponential change. Imagine that change compressed into a decade or less.
So…this time is different. The consequent economic and social changes will create what Yuval Harari calls superfluous people for whom really there is nothing to do.
The brilliant and renowned Ray Kurzweil, Google’s Director of Engineering and “Chief Futurist,” and author of several books on this topic, including The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, is one example of the experts eagerly anticipating the future of artificial intelligence and robotics.
During a Council on Foreign Relations event at which Mr. Kurzweil spoke, Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman was asked : What’s ahead? Will millions of people become “superfluous,” as Harari suggests, with nothing to do? Will these super-smart computers keep them as pets?
“But long before any singularity, our world will change because of artificial intelligence.
“Now, you know, some economists say that we’ve been there before. Technological change does not really cause unemployment. Pessimists—and I am one—tend to think that this is different. And I think many people think that this is different, in part because of speed; so the kind of social changes that are going to occur when you create what Yuval Harari calls superfluous people for whom really there is nothing to do.
“This could be happening in the next few decades, and it’s going to change the world to an extent that we can’t imagine. And you don’t need singularity for that. You need a set of advances that are localized, we can see those happening. Self-driving cars, that’s just one example. But it’s going to happen in medicine, in law, in business decisions. It’s hard to see where it stops.”
[Correction: This quote was originally attributed mistakenly to Ray Kurzweil.
More to come, but for now, here are a couple good resources to get you started. Yes, you need to do homework and become knowledgeable. There is so much at stake.
If you are starting cold, Brad Jones at futurism.com is a good place to start, with an accessible, succinct and relatively balanced review of the current economic impact of robotics and artificial intelligence.
For a more in-depth look, Calum Chace’s website is also good place to start. He is well ahead of me with a published novel ((Pandora’s Brain — though quite different from Trouble is Near), as well as two good, non-fiction overviews, both very good starters:
Both titles provide a wealth of references to more in-depth articles and books.
Max Tegmark ‘s Life 3.0 is essential reading. Tegmark is a physics professor at MIT and co-founder of The Future of Life Institute.
Go to Know for more.