Technology and its advances have done amazing things for life on this planet over the past three decades. And despite arguably increasing the income inequality in the world and overlooking the pockets of poverty here and there, by any measure global citizens have been enriched by technological innovation. The rate of abject poverty has been halved over the last 20 years and, while, some have benefitted more than others, by-and-large we all have never had it better.
But some experts worry that technological advances will pose a risk for humanity at some point in the future, and will present the world with a new set of problems. In many parts of the globe, computers are playing an ever-increasing role in our lives and are challenging society to evolve and adapt to the speed of, for example, advanced communication and manufacturing, and to cope with the accompanying changes in the workplace. Let us explore one such scenario where the ever constant evolution of technology may lead…
In 30 years computers will likely be able to perform almost any job that humans can. One knowledgeable observer, Professor Moshe Vardi, a computer engineering professor at Texas’ Rice University, foresees unemployment surpassing 50 percent by 2045. What might this portend for humans and life as we now know it? Is it a good thing or bad thing? Is it something to excitedly anticipate, or a fear-inducing, cringe-worthy possibility? Is a lifetime of leisure in the offing as a result? And just how will one come to afford to live such a life? And perhaps more importantly, what must we as humans do to prepare ourselves for what may transpire? What will society look like where leisure time dominates, and jobs evaporate?
Professor Vardi is concerned that the absence of work is a harmful development,
“I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being.”
Moreover, the phenomenon of greater, better faster technology is not something that can be halted or legislated out of existence as some politicians contend,
“I do not believe that technology can be stopped. The genie is out of the bottle. What we need to do is to start now thinking very hard and investing in research into how society can cope with the advance of automation.”
Professor Vardi is not alone in his fear for the future. Physicist Stephen Hawking also warns about the pace of innovation, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), in particular, calling it “the worst thing ever for humanity.” He further admonishes,
“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”
Eminent innovators such as Bill Gates have and Elon Musk have also joined the chorus condemning unbridled innovation.
Perhaps these men recall reading about the loss of 100 million lives due to the Industrial Revolution’s resultant turmoil, and the ensuing revolutions around the globe. What is very worrisome is that there is no firewall against rampant innovation just for the sake of it. It’s certainly not going to come from the aforementioned politicians whose vision is focused only on the next election, or worse, the next news cycle! With the world’s population expected to reach 10 billion by mid-century, the spectre of a world with fewer, not more, job prospects seems bleak, rather than hopeful. What, if anything, can be done to change the picture? Or should we just be prepared to kick our feet up and enjoy it, rather than fret?
Maybe, rather than worrying about robots running amok in our lives, and the changes this bring to our lifestyles (for example more leisure time), we should instead look at the practical and pragmatic problems facing us. Machines don’t need vacations, sick days, healthcare, or pensions. They don’t succumb to stress, depression, or nervous breakdowns, can think faster than us, and are not restricted to 8 to 12 hours a day that humans spend working. Machines may therefore be the solution to the current dilemma of how to feed another few billion people by mid-century, so we should also be focusing on how to employ them to best advantage.