November 29, 2016

What does our future look like?

For the longest time, mankind has predicted its own doom. It is not surprising. As we humans have gained more and more control over our fates, we have also learned an ever greater variety of ways to commit mass suicide. In a way, we couldn’t have acquired greater expertise without having created newer and greater means to destroy the world. That doesn’t imply that expertise is inherently self-defeating. It just means we have had to trust ourselves more.

Every technological adventure has its side effects. Every medicine is also a poison. Every new source of food creates a possibility of famine. Human history is a long litany of tales of societies tripping eventually in the pursuit of progress and then innovating themselves out of the trouble. This, in a fundamental way, defines the human mindset and approach – to be simultaneously error prone and innovative.

We worry not just about our end but also about our obsolescence. The Luddites of the 18th century did better than their ancestors. Even so, they complained about the fragility of their fortunes. Their fragility was understandable because there is something terrifying about being a cog in someone else’s machinery.

Also, there is an inherent unfairness about the way technology disrupts societies. The damage to careers, prospects, and lives from progress is not uniformly distributed among people. Neither training nor pedigree can insulate against the potential to fall prey to the fate of Luddites.

Given its dark side, you have to wonder how technology has been allowed to wreak the havoc it has so far. One reason technology has managed to keep itself going is that its benefits accrue rapidly enough to nearly everyone that it has (so far) kept the Luddites at bay. New jobs appear quickly even as old ones are destroyed. Even so, there isn’t a safe position. If at all, the only safe role is to be the owner of the top node in a network. Even that isn’t safe if you stay rooted long enough. So, the better off we become, the more anxious we become.

Truth be told, we haven’t overcome this anxiety in the last two hundred years. Instead, media cliches and science fiction have only been accentuated and perpetuated the anxiety.

There’s another, subtle reason for our anxiety, which can be described as a sense of alienation. The more we view ourselves to be part of someone else’s world or scheme, the greater the gnawing discontent that our imprint on the world may not be ours anymore. We begin to doubt the authenticity of our lives.

I’m no Marxist. I love competition and free markets. The last thing I want is to live in a communist nation. I grew up in a socialist country and understand its pitfalls all too well. But, if you take the right passages out of Das Kapital, they read as incredibly current in today’s times.

As a technologist and someone heavily influenced by American culture, I have come to believe that optimism plays a crucial role in our lives. The American society, the greatest in the last one hundred years, is driven by the message that optimism is the secret to success. America is the land of Manifest Destiny, motivational speakers and “build it and they will come.”

In Silicon Valley too, we have embraced an All-American optimism. To this end, we have made a secular version of Pascal’s wager. As in Pascal’s wager, little harm would have been done if we’ve held onto a false belief in optimism. We are convinced that the side effects will not be so bad as to make the whole project unwise. We push optimistically forward not knowing quite where we are headed.

As an aside: There is another reason why technology has kept itself going. It’s because the technologist does not need to convince the world of his optimism or goodness. We don’t need to have public conversations about our philosophical motivations for the reason that our craft is inherently remunerative and profitable unto itself. Unlike scientists who are often compelled to describe the wonder they feel or the beauty in their work, we don’t need to enchant the politician or the taxpayer. We use what little attention we get to talk about what we have created and not about our core beliefs. Even so, every thoughtful technologist goes through his moments of self-doubt.

Regardless of our inherent optimism, a wide variety of Icarusian fates for mankind are never far from our thoughts. As we reach greater heights of efficiency, we are being confronted by a peculiar question: Will there be people who are “not needed”?  What will happen to these “extra” humans? Will they be ignored and wither away? Or, will they get easy lives? Who decides? How? When?

Examined at a sufficient depth, these questions lead us back to ancient conversations about the human condition itself. What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of our lives?

The right question to ask perhaps is not what should be done with extra humans. First, it has to be pointed out that there can be no such thing as “extra humans.” It is not human to conceptualize or normalize the notion of “extra humans.” If we ever get to the point where we do end up with extra humans, we will have made some grievous conceptual mistake along the way. Second, progress isn’t independent of the human condition. It doesn’t exist outside of it. All progress is, in fact, intended for humans and therefore requires humans to validate itself. The data that drives “automation” has to come ultimately from people so it can be made relevant to people. Automation is no more than elaborate puppetry of machines using “big data” collected from human experiences.

The most crucial quality of our response to automation, artificial intelligence and other high-performance systems that are on their way, lies in how we conceive of what might be considered human. Will human be defined as what machines cannot do? Will it be defined as what machines will not be allowed to do? Or, will machines be defined as what humans cannot or not allowed to do?

Nearly all scenarios that have been conceived in fiction, media or research as to how our futures may play out have to do with how the human identity, technological progress and politics are likely to intersect and influence each other.

Utopian abundance is a notion that originated in ancient Greece and is now entrenched in Silicon Valley. In this, technology becomes the means to create material immortality and abundance and thus escape politics. Technology will be so good that soon everyone will have everything and thus we will eventually have no need for governments.

Malthusian scenarios predict our success to be the cause of our undoing. As we approach abundance, our societies will experience catastrophic failures, thanks to a fatal, deterministic ineptitude in our politics. Human nature plus technology will equal extinction. Technology will become so good that it will become possible to intentionally self-destruct very easily.

In less dire and romantic scenarios, humans become inauthentic and absurd as we approach abundance. Technology becomes the means to spiritual malaise and self-destruction. In Marxian scenarios, as we approach abundance, politics continues to gain preeminence and will decide what’s best for people and will ensure that everyone benefits from the bounty.

One can also conceive of extreme scenarios in which the future does not even include humans, let alone put them at the center of things. Artificial intelligence will become so good that it will become supernatural. Only technology will exist and it will procreate itself. People may not cease to exist but may instead become information entities. It will become possible to create and sustain personas of humans long after they have died. These entities will exist and play some yet to be determined roles in a world controlled by non-human intelligence without the need for human operators.

Is it conceivable that the three hands – the hand of the technology operator, the invisible hand of the markets and the hand of governments – may somehow come together coherently to pave the way for a future in which we not only get to survive but also retain our humanity? I hope so. But I do not know.

We live in exhilaratingly confusing times.

Look at Google. Their free tools are leading to a situation in which everything will eventually be free because people share. But, wouldn’t it be great if we could corner the market by collecting data that no one else has?

If everything is going to be eventually free, why would you need to corner the market? What will wealth mean, when we are done with creating nearly everything?

What if I created a software that could make any human voice sound perfect? What if I could connect humans who can barely sing by giving them a tool to sing together in perfect pitches? Wait, wouldn’t it be more authentic if they were NOT singing perfectly? How much imperfection defines the human condition? 10%? 20%? 30%? What’s the optimal trade-off between abundance and authenticity?

Interesting questions.

We entered into this race against self-destruction a long time ago. We have no choice but to keep running. In fact, if we stop, our self-destruction may be assured.

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