I heard a piece on the radio the other day about robots. One reporter told the story of how he’d driven across the United States almost without speaking to another human being the whole time. Food via self-checkout at the grocery store, hotels via robots check-in systems, etc. This was all very amusing at first. Then the discussion turned to jobs.
It turns out that more and more people are being put out of a job by robots. Not just repetitive factory work, mind. Pathologists. Sports reporters. Soon, drivers. There are, as we all know, lots of things computers do better than we do. That list is growing all the time, and it’s growing faster. Moore’s law says that computing power doubles every eighteen months, and if that continues to hold true, we’re going to start seeing almost unimaginable science fiction-type robots and computers, very, very soon.
People seem not to be paying attention to this issue. I don’t want to call it a problem, because it’s just reality. However, for many (most? all?) of us, it will feel like a problem. It’s not just a matter of losing your current job, of suffering economic loss until you can retrain and find your balance in this new world. It’s a matter of being completely outmoded.
There’s really nothing special about humans. Unusual, perhaps, but not unique. People routinely claim that this or that trait is “uniquely human,” without the faintest justification. My cats have most of these “uniquely human” characteristics, too. There are others that the cats don’t have, but they’re not uniquely human, either. Laughter was the one I heard last. Turns out rats laugh too. Tool use is an old one. Chimps. Ravens. Lots of things use tools. Not unique.
There’s also nothing about carbon that makes it uniquely better for supporting life than silicon. True, there are things that we’re better at than computers are, today. We have emotions, better vision, better language processing, a few other advantages. This will change. Computers are getting better, smarter, faster, every single day, and we’re staying basically the same. Evolution is obsolete. Robots will be better than us in every conceivable way, sometime soon. Maybe within my lifetime. My kids, if I ever have any, might well be the last human generation, unless we figure out some kind of way to live in a world where robots are better than us at everything.
We have to figure this out. Nobody’s going to stop improving robots or computers. To keep this from happening, we’d have to have everyone agree to stop. At the same time. Sort of like how we collectively decided to restrain the development of nuclear weapons. The important difference, though, is that the atom bomb looks like the end of the world. Better robots just look like a pile of cash for the people who make them. There’s no stopping piles of cash.
What we need to do is come up with a plan for how to deal with this transition. Can we come up with some way to improve ourselves as quickly as we improve technology? Can we somehow remain as we are, yet stay in control and actually have our lives improved? There are many unknowns. This could be a coming golden age, or it could easily be crisis in the making, as big a problem as clean drinking water or global climate change. Take some time to think about it. How can we prepare for the day when robots do everything better than we do?