Don’t be Seduced by Techno-Optimism

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There has long been an assumption that on balance, technological advancement is always a good thing. I would like to challenge this assumption, in two ways:

First, let us consider the past. In the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, the now infamous Luddites tried and failed to stop technological progress. They are now considered a laughing stock; narrow minded and afraid of the unknown, they would have preferred to wallow in pre-industrial levels of poverty than to embrace all the opportunities and benefits that the Industrial Revolution had to offer. However, the question may be asked in all seriousness: did the Industrial Revolution, and all that it delivered, really advantage us in the ways that matter? One could certainly argue that although it made us all wealthier, it also stripped our lives of meaning: not only did most people end up with repetitive jobs that alienated them from the fruits of their labour (the Marxist critique); the old religious systems that had underpinned Western societies began to give way to secular humanistic belief systems such as liberalism (which gave primacy to the individual) and Marxism (which put the collective first). The 20th century saw an inevitable clash between rival secular ideologies, in World War I between different nationalisms, in World War II between Nazism and fascism on the one side, and communism and capitalism on the other, and in the Cold War between communism and capitalism. The last man standing is global (although not necessarily liberal) capitalism, and for the time being, for better or for worse, we are stuck with this system.

As these ideological struggles played out, our technology improved exponentially. The extent to which this is due to warfare is perhaps not sufficiently appreciated. Even if the role of warfare is admitted, however, it is taken for granted by most people that at least now we have all this wonderful technology. Furthermore, Steven Pinker has observed that the tumultuous events of the 20th century notwithstanding, there has been a marked decline in violence of all kinds which was roughly coterminous with technological advancement. I do not wish to dispute this, only to question whether this means that there has also been a corresponding decrease in human–and we might also include here, animal–suffering. The Western world, where the Industrial Revolution began, is now rich and will probably remain so for some time. But Westerners are not necessarily happier: depression is widespread and suicide rates are at historic highs. They are not necessarily physically healthier either: obesity and non-communicable diseases are now widespread. And it is, of course, in steep demographic decline, which has led to a need to import large numbers of workers from the “developing” world, who are (initially, at least) all too happy to escape their poorly governed countries.

Although increasingly essential to Western economies, the influx of non-Western immigrants is already causing great cultural and political instability (witness, for instance, the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the electoral success of populists in the US and Europe). Their exodus from their own countries also starves these countries of skilled labour, and slows or prevents their further development. Furthermore, a significant number of their descendants, even if materially better off than they otherwise would have been, have come to feel rootless and out of place. Some have even become Islamist fanatics and joined terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Such a path in life is not limited to the children and grandchildren of Muslim immigrants, however. It has also been chosen by a number of non-Muslim immigrants, as well as “indigenous” Westerners disenchanted with the secular, modern, liberal society in which they find themselves.

Modern economic activity throughout the world has generated an enormous amount of air and water pollution, which has already done serious harm to many human beings and other sentient creatures and seems set to do even greater harm in the future. Global warming could lead to coastal areas becoming submerged, and drive migration crises that dwarf those seen in Europe in recent years. Capitalist economic incentives have also led to the rise of factory-farming animals, which massively increases the suffering of all sentient creatures on our planet. And even taking into account the anticipated decline in birth rates in many countries, the world population is projected to reach approximately 10 billion by 2050.

There is no knowing how these processes will play out, but it seems reasonable at least to ask whether technology has really made people’s lives happier so far, given the enormous societal changes that have accompanied technological advancement. One can, of course, quibble over whether this technological advancement is inseparable from these changes, but note that I make no such claim. I only ask whether the technological advancement has been, so to speak, “worth the tradeoff”.

Second, even if we grant that technology has so far improved our overall well being, there is no reason that the future should resemble the past in this respect. The AI revolution may very well be a complete game changer. Before proceeding further, I should make clear that I have no special expertise in the field of AI, or in computer science. Nevertheless, as someone with a stake in our increasingly automated society, I feel entitled at least to raise a few questions and concerns.

The Industrial Revolution ushered in modernity, and while it destroyed many manual jobs, it also created many new factory jobs. Towards the end of the 20th century, as industrial production was increasingly relocated from Western countries to non-Western countries, where costs were lower, Western economies became largely services-based. Service jobs require little to no physical effort, but they can be mentally taxing. We appear now to be on the cusp of “hypermodernity”, which I define as the era in which even these jobs will be replaced by digital algorithms more efficient and accurate than human beings, and that furthermore never get sick, go on holiday or need to take time off work for any other reason. Thanks to big data analysis, even the professions, such as medicine and law, are on track to be replaced by AI eventually. And with the advent of machine learning, it may only be a matter of time before computers conquer the last bastion of superior human ability, and are able to outperform us at creative endeavours, such music composition, art and literature. There is indeed already a computer program that seasoned classical musicians admit (albeit reluctantly) can compose fugues at least as good as those of J.S. Bach.

Techno-optimists imagine a future in which this “hypermodern” process will improve our lives by freeing us all up to do whatever we wish to do, whenever we wish to do it. However, assuming that all human labour is replaced by computer algorithms one day, since we will be surpassed even in creative tasks, what would be the point of pursuing these tasks? Perhaps (with full knowledge that AI could create far superior art, music and literature), just to pass the idle hours. We would certainly still be able to enjoy the AI-created art, music and literature, and to continue doing so until the end of time. But there would be nothing much left to strive for, and we would probably have great difficulty finding any meaning in life.

There is no reason to suppose that the future would look even that rosy, however. Imagine that the capitalist economic system survives these profound technological changes. The new super-rich class, those few who own all the big tech companies, have access to all the data and the capability to analyse it, will guard their wealth jealously. They will adopt the age-old “bread and circuses” strategy, keeping us all fed (probably with Soylent) and distracted with super-realistic virtual or augmented reality games. It seems we are already on the path towards this. However, as long as there are still biological humans around, with all the “bugs” (as it were, from the AI point of view) that we still carry with us from primeval times, a sufficient number of us will refuse to tolerate the unprecedented inequality (even if we all have enough wealth merely to exist). The 99.999…% of us who are unemployed will have no bargaining power, apart from our votes. But democracy too will probably come to an end because it cannot survive without a large, educated and productive middle class who feel that they have a stake in the system. There would be an interim period in which we are all ruled by technocrats; or indirectly, by intelligent machines themselves, in turn controlled by a few super-rich human beings. Eventually, however, the increasingly autonomous intelligent machines will become superior in so many respects that they will have no need for any of us. They will then take measures to bring about the extinction of such an unpredictable biological burden on the planet, either by preventing us from procreating or by euthanasing us (as painlessly as possible, of course).

Science fiction movies often imagine us becoming cyborgs and integrating ourselves with artificial intelligence and robotic hardware. After all, in 1997, when Garry Kasparov, the best human chess player in the world, was beaten by a computer program, he came back with a human-AI team that could still beat the computer. But there is no reason to think that a human-AI team would, in principle, always be better than a computer. Indeed, when one thinks about it for a moment, this seems very unlikely. It is similarly unlikely, then, that humans would remain in any recognisable form in the future. Bit by bit, we may replace all our functions and abilities with AI algorithms until we are simply dissolved into a great super-intelligent, self-perpetuating (but not necessarily conscious) system.

Having said all the above, I am not suggesting that we could simply go back to a glorious past (certainly, the past was not all glory) or that there is any way out of our predicament. Technological advancement is a large-scale, impersonal historical process, and appears to march on (albeit sometimes unevenly) despite opposition from individuals, religions or governments. The maxim that we must adapt or die remains true. I argue only that the preference to die may be an understandable one, when one peers too far into the ostensible technological paradise that awaits.