AI and the future of humanity

Whether we like it or not, Algorithmic Intelligence is here to stay, and genuine Artificial Intelligence, even though not related, is probably coming at some point in the future. Just like genetic modification of food and humans, you couldn’t stop it if you wanted to.

These innovations genuinely have the potential to make life better for everybody. [EDIT: How and why was covered excellently in a recent FRONTLINE documentary.] The challenge is that there’s not going to be a straight line from here to there, and history suggests things will probably get worse — potentially, A LOT worse — before the benefits of AI outweigh the costs. Because there will be costs.

To be clear, I’m not a pessimist by disposition. I believe problems in life and in history are both inevitable and solvable, which means we shouldn’t fret unnecessarily when a new one appears. A little worry goes a long way.

First, consider the typical course:

  • A new invention or discovery, often by a young person who has more intelligence than wisdom, promises to make life better for all mankind.
  • Optimists, typically liberals, foresee what we can do with it and assume therefore we will and so welcome it uncritically.
  • We do some good, but also a lot of bad — much of it completely unanticipated. (For example, the internet facilitates commentary like this, but measured by weight it’s mostly porn. By far. After that, it’s gambling, cat pictures, selfies, scams, misinformation, and organized crime, both public and private.)
  • The invention improves the condition of elites, typically by making things a little worse for everyone else, and the novelty is soberly re-examined for what it really is versus what we wanted it to be. (We’re at this stage now with social media/big data.)
  • The government gets involved. Bans and prohibitions are enacted, addressing symptom rather than cause.
  • The wealthy and politically connected quickly claim beneficial exceptions, often in isolated “walled gardens” separate from the rest of us. The IRS, for example, has an entire separate agency for dealing with the very rich.
  • Generations of inequality and/or outright suffering follow, such as after the invention of the steam engine, which made products more affordable for everyone but also ripped limbs from children and stagnated wages for nine decades.
  • Some time later, people start to contemplate the responsible governance they should’ve considered at the point of irrational exuberance.
  • Changes are introduced gradually over the objection of social conservatives, and slowly, mostly by trial and error, life gradually improves for everyone but the poor, who are pretty much ignored.

Futurists in the 1930s predicted that after the invention of a robotic labor force, men would no longer need to work. Their erroneous assumption was that resources would be shared rather collected at the top.

To be fair, they used to be. From the advent of the labor union to its decline in the 1980s, workers tended to share in the success of the firm. That is, if the company did better, everybody did better. Bosses took more, but if they got a raise, so did the line.

The productivity gained from information technology was not shared. Office workers never unionized, and so while productivity has skyrocketed since 1980, growing by 70%, real wages have only grown about 9%. Bosses took the rest, which is why wealth inequality reversed and has been steadily climbing since the Reagan/Thatcher era.


AI might eventually reach such ubiquity that the futurist predictions of the 1930s will come to pass and all (or almost all) humans will benefit from it. That’s definitely possible.

If you’re an optimist, consider a thought experiment. Imagine you have traveled back in time to the year 1910 and are sitting in a parlor with a group of intellectuals who believe you are from the future, and they lean in with bright eyes and ask you: How will life be for us?

What do you say?

“In a few years, there will be a horrible global war that will kill unprecedented numbers of people, not just through violence but also famine and disease. After that, you will suffer a horrible influenza epidemic second only to the Black Death, followed in a decade by a massive and unprecedented economic depression that will put millions out of work and displace millions more. Many will die.

“The economy will eventually recover, but only because of another world war, this one even larger and more devastating than the first (if you can believe it), and which will see the invention and use of weapons capable of wiping out the entire human race. In the aftermath, the European colonial empires will retract, leaving a vacuum of power, and the developing world, from South America to Africa to Asia, will experience repeated waves of socialist revolution, genocide, and famine .

“But… for those who survive, things will actually get better than ever before. Literacy and life expectancy will increase. Democracy will spread. Global poverty will plummet. Basic social safety nets will be introduced, including national health insurance and a minimum wage. Women will get the vote and racial integration will be the law of the land, if not always the practice. So chin up! Smile on your faces!”

I think the greatest myth we were sold after the end of the Cold War was that history had stopped, that it was just going to be liberal democracy as far as the eye could see. It certainly seemed that way after the Berlin Wall fell, followed quickly by the Soviet Union.

Those of us alive today are the beneficiaries of history, not its victims, making that myth probably the greatest survivorship bias in recent history.

The Tienanmen Square protests, which failed to introduce change, took place the same year the Wall came down, but the China of 1989 was almost an economic afterthought, especially compared to Japan, who seemed poised to conquer the world. There was no sense that China would ever accomplish anything, except by great weight, and that eventually, she too would have to join the New World Order.

In a single generation, China has become the world’s largest economy and a committed leader in AI research. Two of the five fastest computers in the world are there, with more on the way. China’s leaders are building a semi-capitalist surveillance state the likes of which the world has never seen.

In the same period, the “Arab Spring” failed to produce any lasting change, and the number of democracies has started to decline for the first time in history. The greatest wave of transnational immigration in the history of our species has sparked the return of fascism as a serious political force, and, thanks to the telecommunications revolution, propaganda has grown while personal privacy has all but disappeared.

In other words, the world is tumbling back towards political chaos at the same time that widespread climate change will shift the global distribution of water.

To this, we will add AI.

[EDIT: For a fantastic summary of the challenges it will bring and why, see this 2018 Atlantic article by historian and scholar Yuval Noah Harari.]

The problem with AI isn’t just that it introduces another social asymmetry, such as what we’ve seen going all the way back to the invention of agriculture, but that it introduces the ultimate asymmetry.

In the past, the wealthy and powerful were always — at some point, once you got far enough down — dependent on the poor and working classes: to grow food, to staff factories, to fill armies, to clean house, etc. That meant there was a floor to human suffering. Things could only get so bad before workers went on strike or the population rebelled and so introduced a “correction” (in economic terms). This is the fodder of history, the dates of which you were forced to memorize in school.

AI — by which I mean all of it, both today’s algorithmic intelligence and tomorrow’s true artificial consciousness — has the genuine potential to render the great mass of people not just superfluous but an outright burden. There will be no reason, in a politico-economic sense, for most of them to exist since neither their labor nor their vote will empower the ruling class.

It isn’t that machines will take over and destroy humanity. It’s that they will become the tools by which a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of humanity enslaves the rest of it.

And if we rebel? When AI produces the food, manufactures the goods, and comprises the military, there will no longer be anything to stop the powers-that-be from reproducing and extending the “solutions” that have repeatedly occurred throughout human history: from Stalinist Russia to the pogroms of medieval Europe to the Khmer Rouge to the Rwandan genocide and on and on, right up to what’s going on in Myanmar at the time I’m writing this.

Wherever we go, there we are. Whatever tools we invent, the hand that holds them is still a human one.

If we accept the simple premise that history is not done, is likely never done, we must also accept that, sooner or later, another calamity will occur, which means we are living through an interregnum period.

Almost all of the great calamities of the modern era have followed large-scale technological-economic change.

So let’s complete our thought experiment. Imagine a traveler from the year 2110 is sitting in your living room. You lean in bright-eyed and ask him: How will life be for us?