We just changed to 2017 and writing about time looks fitting.
It is three years now that when I encounter an extraordinary event, I mentally play a game: I am trying to predict what its repercussions will be, both short and long term.
For example, after the Brexit vote, I tried to divine what will be the medium term reaction of the markets to the British pound.
I won’t boast that I have made any spectacular predictions so far. If there is anything that has turned up from this habit, is that I am now alert of the possible outcomes and won’t be but moderately surprised from what will eventually take place.
This mental game though, has led me gradually to longer term prediction attempts. Not really predictions of an outcome, but rather fathoming of the consequences of a possible outcome.
There are three things, that currently look remote, but which I deem not so, and which, regardless of the time span, I think will have unprecedented consequences. Not for my/our/current view/life/perspective, but for the humankind as a whole.
Here they are, ordered by their future proximity.
The end of work.
This is the first thing that I see coming. And it cannot come easily. If you skim the news these days, you can’t miss either announcements of factory job replacements by robots or white collars turned obsolete by a certain AI.
The truth is that technology has reached a point where it can substitute any kind of human labor.
There is a line of thought that goes like this: a lot of jobs will be lost, but new ones will be created.
Numbers are always missing in such claims, because they are hard to come up with, in the first place, but, primarily, because they are very inconvenient. If there is going to be a shift in the type of labor on demand, it will be but an insignificant fraction of the type turned obsolete.
A more realistic approach is the discussion about a Universal Minimum Income for all. UMI, or basic income, the theory goes, will be given unconditionally and without exchange. And regardless if the recipient is employed or not. Actually, it is even presented as a job stimulant, in certain cases. And there are already a few countries (Canada, Finland, Scotland) experimenting with the concept while the EU MP’s have started a discussion for a Pan-European roll out.
This makes more sense. There are huge unanswered questions about what a life without employment will be like, what will it mean to our psychology, curiosity, drive, creative powers, relationships etc. But at least, UMI will prevent us from one very violent thing: a massive revolt that will bring an unprecedented global bloodshed without solving the problem.
Why a revolt wouldn’t solve the problem?
Time and again, we have seen that once a technology is introduced, it cannot be taken back. It can only become obsolete by another technology. Regardless of how many people will lose their lives in such a luddite but truly justifiable uprising, robots and AI are here to stay. And we better be prepared.
Leaving scepticism aside for a moment, let’s try to imagine what UMI implies.
All the economies of the world today combine capital with labor to make products and services. This is what Adam Smith and Karl Marx have taught us.
Robots and AI are a sort of capital. They are owned by individuals or firms, and, if they become the sole production factor, the capital owners are entitled to all the gains from production. No salaries are due or required, no income for the average person is generated. Everything goes to the capitalist.
There are big question marks here. Those with an economic background will raise a flag: “Supply creates its own demand” they will say, echoing John Maynard Keynes and his reformulation of the Say’s law. With one apparent difference: labor was the factor mediating between supply and demand. As supply increases, wages are paid that become income that becomes demand, it turn. But what happens if the need to pay wages does not exist anymore?
The life expectancy kept increasing in the previous century, going from ~40 to ~80. It has, effectively, doubled in a century. And this trend will continue. There is a biological limit which we have approached very closely. But it is questionable whether this limit is meaningful any more, since biotechnology and genetics are making inroads into reverse-engineering human biology something that can increase artificially the human lifespan (there are already companies founded with this sole purpose).
By how much?
Who knows? Maybe indefinitely. If you can break down a mechanism to its parts and then can replace the faulty ones and reassemble it, you can make it work almost indefinitely.
But here is the double problem: All the more people will become jobless but will potentially be able to live longer because, to a certain extent, the breakthroughs in the human engineering will drip down to anyone. Restless ness will be on the rise.
But, say, a key part of bioengineering is very expensive. Like, rejuvenating a brain. What if this can give people a 50% increase in their life expectancy? And what if it is marketed so as to be affordable only by the very few? Historically, death was the great equalizer. It is what religions have always preached: we are all equal in front of death. This teaching has been some consolation for the poor, and, at times, a form of justice. The only one they were left with.
But if this final limit becomes a luxury product, then the poor will feel shattered, ultimately cheated, deprived of the last drop of worth and dignity. And they will revolt. Much more fiercely than they would because of wealth differences. And then what? Resolution or dystopia?
The great leap forward.
In a jobless world with longer lifespans and re-engineered bodies, space travel will not be that unthinkable anymore. Even with the current spacecraft speeds, going to the nearest star and back will be within the span of a lifetime.
But why go to space, in the first place?
If Elon Musk’s argument (being an interplanetary species gives us more chances of survival) is not convincing you, then the quest for raw materials will make more sense. The asteroid belt is full of them and technology is always hungry for more.
I am not talking about fossil fuel, of course. There aren’t any elsewhere in the solar system, and, with the progress in renewable technologies soon we won’t be needing them anyway.
I am talking about metals, rare metals, too expensive to find on an earth already overexploited. Far fetched? Well, Luxemburg is already drafting laws about asteroid exploitation. And, at least two (Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries) companies have announced relevant plans.
But the economic aspect, while compelling, it is not the most thrilling one. The most thrilling aspect is the possibility of a first attempt to an interstellar manned travel.
Think of it: the Earth will be full, people will not worry about subsistence, lives will be longer and healthier. Certainly some people will think, even out of sheer boredom, to make the big leap and try to explore the Cosmos. The Martial colonisation already has attracted volunteers even without the conditions mentioned before. How many more will come then, when the prerequisites materialise?
Given the advances in medical technologies and AI, and for the needs of such a travel, we can imagine various enhancements of the human biology and cognition. Enhancements that might frighten us now but that will be fundamental for the survival in outer space.
And if we arrive to this, shall we be humans anymore? The nuances of what is human, transhuman and posthuman will be all too real and pretty much blurred.
One thing is certain: the future will not be boring.
Here I will list all things that corroborate the views expressed above.
The AI Threat Isn’t Skynet. It’s the End of the Middle Class.
As Goldman Embraces Automation, Even the Masters of the Universe Are Threatened
What It Would Take to Reach the Stars
UAE Announces Plans to Have a Human Colony on Mars by 2117