The company that pits its labor against another’s use of technology loses. The worker who pits his labor against technology loses. – The John Henry Law & Corollary
[This is the linked transcript of my regular KVMR commentary broadcast on 31 January 2018.]
Let’s take a break from the political goings on in Washington and Sacramento, and consider something that will really change our lives in the not too distant future. In previous commentaries we have visited the approaching Singularity, when machines, the so-called AIs, surpass human intelligence. (more here, here, and here) Many people already are aware that we live in the pre-Singularity years as we hear daily reports of smart machines and robots displacing humans in another area of expertise or somewhere new in the workplace.
It wasn’t that long ago when even well-read people still used the ‘never’ word – ‘machines will never be able to do this, or they’ll never best humans doing that.’ Well, today we are already on a slippery slope, and witness machines beating the best humans in the most sophisticated games, outperforming the most knowledgeable humans in more and more areas of medicine (such as diagnostics, prescribing treatments, and even in delicate surgical procedures); machines are already world-class masters in finance and manufacturing. And autonomous vehicles are taking to the highways, our airspace, and distant battlefields.
The old shibboleth that new technologies will always create more jobs than they destroy has given us hope since John Henry the Steel Driving Man of the 19th century (here and here), but sadly that no longer holds true. Today human employment has become more selective than ever, and our current high employment rate is maintained almost entirely by low participation in the workforce, and an expanding economy which itself is driven by increased uses of advanced technologies.
What work humans will do in the next decade or two is anyone’s guess, but you can bet the farm that we all will be competing with tireless, strong, extremely agile, very smart, and much less expensive workers with silicon brains. And talk about income inequality – you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
As an example, let’s turn to a pursuit that almost all of us still think will forever be reserved for humans - making music. Specifically, composing, producing, and performing it. Before you write off silicon artists, both unembodied and humanoid, consider how second-best performances already fare in the entertainment and sports markets. Why do women’s athletics have such a hard time competing with the men for media audiences? Who today would be interested in following a man vs machine match in which the machine is the guaranteed winner? And who would even watch a human vs human contest where it is known that they are second rate competitors – an intelligent machine has and would again beat either of them. In short, consider that we might soon attend human-only competitions with the compassion that today motivates us to watch the Special Olympics or foot races for amputees.
Now imagine watching a perfectly fashioned, fully conversant, pre-sentient android virtuoso violinist or pianist play a difficult classical concerto or some newly composed music that no human could master. How would we accept such artistry with the knowledge that even the best human virtuoso is not up to the art of the possible? And beyond that beckon conceivable musics in new audio formats that can only be synthesized by machines, conceived by other machines which have learned to compose aural presentations that are siren-like to the human auditory system, and therefore overwhelmingly pleasing above the consumption of all other previously offered recreational sounds.
In such a fast approaching world, what then will we humans do to challenge, amuse, and entertain ourselves - in short, what shall we do to maintain a purposeful existence? Today we already see some answers to what people will do when they see themselves as without hope and irrelevant to the established social order. For the rest of us, our best defense and greatest comfort against such far out notions come from simply ignoring the possibilities, or holding fast to the belief that it will never happen. But wait a minute, there’s that ‘never’ word again.
My name is Rebane, and I also expand on this and related themes on Rebane’s Ruminations where the transcript of this commentary is posted with relevant links, and where such issues are debated extensively. However, my views are not necessarily shared by KVMR. Thank you for listening.