Let’s do a thought experiment.
Let’s imagine a world in which almost all the work required to sustain human life on the planet is performed by intelligent machines. Think about it: All the crops get planted, raised and harvested by robots. Same for livestock. Machines make all the clothing and build all the houses. People and things get transported by driverless vehicles on the ground, over the oceans and in the sky.
Food gets delivered by an AI-controlled fulfillment service that brings groceries right to the front door. Refrigerators and storage cabinets are smart enough to request replenishment when supplies run low. Packaging and containers are IoT devices that integrate easily with refrigerators and storage cabinets. Everything is communicating everywhere all the time.
Power sources are installed and maintained by robotic intelligence, some of which are supervised by a small cadre of humans. Power is delivered by AI, too. Most power is supplied by solar and nuclear energy. Given the high energy yield-to-weight ratio that fossil fuel and biofuel provide, internal combustion engines still power most aircraft.
Humans login to online schools where the curriculum is designed by AI. Lessons are delivered by AI, too, and the teaching AI is equipped with nice, supportive voices. Each lesson is custom designed to the needs and ability of the learner. Progress is monitored minutely and reported back to interested, authorized parties at regular intervals—mom, dad and the university. Some school systems provide community centers where children and teenagers congregate to learn and practice basic social skills.
Everybody’s DNA is registered in the cloud. Medical services are provided online. People are connected directly to a diagnostic cloud via a variety of fitness devices and smart apparel that constantly monitor the patient’s body, including but not limited to heart rate, blood pressure, lung capacity, daily calorie burn and current body fat index. The devices are smart enough to get blood samples painlessly on demand and then do perfunctory analysis in real time. More complex procedures are administered at a medical center staffed by robots expert in a given procedure, from administering a colonoscopy to resetting a broken bone or performing a liver transplant. A few highly educated, highly trained humans staff the medical centers to handle edge cases beyond the capability of current AI/robotic technology.
Economic productivity is almost completely separated from human labor. Intelligent robotics continue to be the most efficient way to fuel the economy. Human purchasing power is determined by a combination of market-driven forces and social support systems. Those few who have the motivation and skills required to participate in the workforce are compensated for their activities. Such work requires a high degree of education, intelligence and creativity to do the inquiry, analysis and synthesis needed to provide economic value. Their compensation is quite luxurious. Those who are not in the workforce are provided with the purchasing power necessary to acquire the goods and services that are needed for a comfortable life. People who have inherited wealth live a life of luxury, too, for as long as they can manipulate their purchasing power to maintain or increase their wealth. Some wealth is still so immense that it’s inexhaustible.
Crime exists in varying degrees, going up and down at predictable levels. All human activity is observable in the public space. Most humans allow parts of their private space to be monitored in exchange for some type of compensation.
Policing data is analyzed continuously to improve crime prediction models. Humans perform law enforcement activities with the help of robotic assistants. The robots confront armed assailants. The humans supervise. Transgressions such as moving violations and drunk driving are rare, as most transportation is driverless. Violent crime still occurs—always has, always will. Persons exhibiting extreme criminal behavior are isolated in prisons that are run by robots who are supervised by well-compensated humans. Administering justice is still a human activity, as is politics.
Warfare continues, but with fewer humans acting as belligerents. Warring states as well as non-state actors assault each other using physical robots that serve as an extension of the combatant. Cyberweaponry is powered by bots, but most weapons are controlled by a human operator. One human can control hundreds of weapons. Some weapons are self-directing, using artificial intelligence that can interpret predefined assault plans and act accordingly.
Governing policy is created by artificial intelligence under the supervision of human oversight. AI creates legislation based on information gathered from data streams. One stream is data provided by analyzing the behavior and condition of the population. The other stream is polling data. Humans increase their purchasing power by participating in frequent polls administered by government agencies. The authenticity of polling data is verified directly against the DNA of the contributor.
The daily activities of most people are to consume content from the internet and play interactive games either with other humans, AI endpoints or a combination of both. Also, most people use shared assets for amusement; for example, riding a motorcycle or skiing at a resort. Some of the shared assets are owned by individuals. Most are owned by multinational corporations.
Movies are still popular. Some movie scripts are created by humans with AI assistants. Most movies are produced by pure AI, according to deep analysis of the past viewing behavior of a wide variety of audiences. Movies that are custom-designed according to the profile of the particular viewer and produced on demand continue to grow in popularity. Most of the actors in the movies are human emulations designed by AI.
Sports such as baseball, football, soccer and basketball struggle for fans as spectatorship grows in the online gaming sector. Online gambling is still popular, as is the lottery. However, participants cannot use standard purchasing power to gamble. Rather, a special recreation token, considered an extreme luxury item, is used. Lottery tickets are available for free—one per person for a monthly drawing. The winner is compensated luxuriously.
The Stuff of Science Fiction? Not Anymore
If you’ve gotten to this point—and I hope you have—you might be thinking that the fully automated world I describe above is pure fantasy, a pipe dream, science fiction. It might be, but let’s go through the items.
First, in terms of agriculture, in 1790 90 percent of the U.S. population was made up of farmers. Today, the number is around 2 percent, yet production far surpasses 1790 levels. How? Automation.
As far as robots making clothing, check out the Jaeger Rapier Weaving Machine: It makes cloth in 45-foot widths. Also, check out the video from the Wall Street Journal that describes using robots to replace garment workers in Bangladesh.
In terms of transportation, it’s not a question of if driverless vehicles will dominate the roadways of the world. Rather, it’s when. Also, IEEE is reporting that crewless container ships are on the horizon. Norway’s Yarla Birkeland is already here.
Flying is already highly automated. Other than takeoff and landing, human crews serve more as a safety backup in case something goes wrong in flight. In the military, attack drones are still manned by remote human crews. But, again, the humans are there more for fail safety than operational purposes. Flying may never become a solely automated undertaking, but keep in mind that it takes only two humans to operate an Airbus a380, which can seat 850 passengers.
Amazon and Walmart are already in the food delivery business. Right now, it’s a safe bet to assume that a human is doing the delivery. But, given the dramatic improvement in delivery robots, how long will it be until that whole process is run by a machine? Also, LG makes a smart refrigerator that provides many of the food provisioning services described above.
Oh yeah, did I mention that China is presently collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans and blood types of all residents in Xinjiang between the age of 12 and 65? We’re talking millions of people. Granted, China is not a poster child for respecting the privacy of the individual. But, let’s say that here in the United States there was an offer to give anybody an ancestry report for free in exchange for a DNA sample—or, if “free” proved to have little motivational value, the offer was for $100. People sell their blood for a lot less.
Robotic surgery is real. Right now the robot is an assistant to the human. But, as we’ve seen with the progression of other technologies, allowing surgical robots to have increasing degrees of autonomy is only a matter of time.
In case you’re wondering about the real future of warfare, according to an article on the BBC’s website, “As early as 2005 the New York Times reported the Pentagon’s plans to replace soldiers with autonomous robots.” Interested in a high-powered robotic machine gun that can hit a target 1.5 miles away in the dead of night? Check out the Super aEgis II, manufactured by DoDAAM.
I could go on and on, but I won’t, tl;dr and all that. Still, given the current rate of technical achievement, when you look at any of the scenes I described above, it’s not difficult to suppose that everything I imagined is very possible. From where I sit, we’re just not that far away from the endgame: AI and robots replacing most human labor in the economic sphere.
So, what’s the missing link? What’s it going to take to make sure that, as human labor is replaced and never to return, purchasing power is still maintained? The first step, of course, is to have some reasonable articulation of what that path to a positive outcome can look like. Fortunately, there’s a good deal of thinking going on about the topic. I’ll share a reading/viewing list at the end of this article.
But. more importantly, it seems as if no one in government is really talking about the inevitability of the dominance of AI and robotics or the consequences thereof. The powers that be are frightfully ignorant about what’s to come. I have yet to hear the words, “We need to start anticipating the consequences of a highly automated society,” come from the mouth of anyone in government. This needs to change.
It’s a serious issue. Today, the impact has been felt mostly factory workers, here in the United States and worldwide. When it really hits, when all professions are subject to replacement—which some estimate to be within the next five years—the shock will be overwhelming. Then, unless government “gets it,” the best recourse is to own a lot of stock in pharmaceutical and cannabis companies, because most people will need to be anesthetized to their environment to tolerate the social and economic breakdown on the horizon. Or, we can start planning to work toward a future in which ubiquitous automation provides not only a luxurious life for a few but a comfortable life for the rest of the population.
As for me, I wish we were planning.
Read and Listen to More:
Book: “Rise of the Robots,” by Martin Ford
Book: “The War on Normal People,” by Andrew Yang
Video: “Humans Need Not Apply”
Video: “Obsolete by 2030”