Whilst there is no doubt that Artificial Intelligence is here to stay, much like other predecessor technologies it is clearly going through its own hype cycle. The hype is not just in the form of its commercial potential but also its supposedly destructive effect on humanity. But given the recent statements by Sam Altman, the founder of OpenAI himself that AI if not regulated can be dangerous, we need to pay heed. So what can we envision as the future of mankind if AI were to dominate. Turns out fiction can help. And why not? Much of the sci-fi movies or books have turned into reality much sooner than most of us expected.
“The “Culture” series by Iain M. Banks, a Scottish novelist, goes further, considering a world in which AI has grown sufficiently powerful as to be superintelligent—operating far beyond anything now foreseeable. The books are favourites of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the bosses of Amazon and Tesla, respectively. In the world spun by Banks, scarcity is a thing of the past and AI “minds” direct most production. Humans turn to art, explore the cultures of the vast universe and indulge in straightforwardly hedonistic pleasures.”
Here’s an imaginative piece in ‘The Economist’ which is a thought experiment of sorts to see what human beings will be left doing should AI take over everything else we do now. The underlying principle for the prediction is driven by research from William Baumol, a late economist:
“In a paper published in 1965, he and William Bowen, a colleague, examined wages in the performing arts. They noted that the “output per man-hour of the violinist playing a Schubert quartet in a standard concert hall is relatively fixed”. Even as technological progress made other industries more productive, the performing arts remained unaffected. Because humans were still willing to spend on the arts even as prices rose—demand was “inelastic”—the arts took up more of GDP and therefore weighed on overall growth.
Baumol’s example points to a broader principle. If the domains that AI is able to fully automate are only imperfect substitutes for those which it cannot, and the demand for non-automatable industries is hard to budge, then the unproductive sectors will grow as a share of GDP, reducing overall growth. Messrs Aghion, Jones and Jones note that this is in fact what has happened across much of the past century. Technology has automated swathes of agriculture and manufacturing, driving down the relative price of their outputs. As a result, people have spent a greater share of their incomes on industries such as education, health care and recreation, which have not seen the same productivity gains.”
However, the article posits that the advancement of robotics could indeed enable AI to replace all human activities:
“One might then expect humanity to give up on toil, much like in “Wall-E”. Indeed, in 1930 John Maynard Keynes, another economist, penned an essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, in which he speculated that a century in the future people would work for less than 15 hours a week.
The growth generated by technology would solve the “economic problem”, he predicted, and allow people to turn their attention to activities that are intrinsically pleasurable. Admittedly, Keynes’s 15-hour work week has not arrived—but higher levels of wealth, which may increase the appeal of leisure, have cut working hours much as he expected. The average number of hours worked a week in the rich world has fallen from around 60 in the late 19th century to under 40 today.”
The article then shows how humans are not always driven by needs and hence when needs are taken care of by machines, our wants will drive our activities:
“Consider three areas where humans may still have a role: work that is blurred with play, play itself and work where humans retain some kind of an advantage.
…Start with the blurring boundary between work and play. Although working hours have fallen over the past century, most of the drop was before the 1980s. Increasingly, rich people labour for longer than poorer people….Keynes perhaps underestimated the size of this second class of wants. A cynic might suggest that entire academic disciplines fall into it: existing with no apparent value to the world, with academics nevertheless competing furiously for status based on their braininess. Economists would say that, for many, work has become a “consumption good”, offering far more utility than the income it generates.
Games offer another hint as to why people may not stop working altogether. Millions of people are employed in entertainment and sports, competing for clout in activities that some consider immaterial….As Banks speculated, humans might specialise in “the things that really [matter] in life, such as sport, games, romance, studying dead languages, barbarian societies and impossible problems, and climbing high mountains without the aid of a safety harness.”
It seems unlikely that people will give up control of politics to robots. Once AIs surpass humans, people will presumably pay even closer attention to them. Some political tasks might be delegated: humans could, for instance, put their preferences into an AI model that produces proposals for how to balance them. Yet as a number of political philosophers, including John Locke in the 17th century and John Rawls in the 20th, have argued, participation in political procedures gives outcomes legitimacy in the eyes of fellow citizens. There would also be more cynical considerations at play. Humans like to have influence over one another. This would be true even in a world in which everyone’s basic needs and wants are met by machines. Indeed, the wealthiest 1% of Americans participate politically at two to three times the rate of the general public on a range of measures from voting to time spent on politics.
Last, consider areas where humans have an advantage in providing a good or service—call it a “human premium”. This premium would preserve demand for labour even in an age of superadvanced AI. One place where this might be true is in making private information public. So long as people are more willing to share their secrets with other people than machines, there will be a role for those who are trusted to reveal that information to the world selectively, ready for it then to be ingested by machines. Your correspondent would like to think that investigative journalists will still have jobs.”
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