Artificial intelligence is considered by many to be a more important invention than the discovery of fire and electricity. What road lies ahead?
Andrew Yang, the man behind Venture for America – a leading NGO for entrepreneurship and start-ups – claims millions of Americans will lose their jobs in the next few years. Yang, who is also a Democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 elections, predicts that heavy investments in AI, automatisation and robotics may lead to a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s. «All you need is self-driving cars to destabilise society,» he recently told the New York Times.
According to Yang, paying out billions of dollars to the unemployed will be the only way to prevent an uprising or the total disintegration of society. In just a few years, a million uneducated truck drivers will be made redundant, followed by skilled workers from shops, call centres and insurance and accounting firms. According to McKinsey, a consultancy, a third of all jobs will become automated within a decade.
With the 50th anniversary for the 1968 revolt coming up, it’s tempting to ask whether we’re able to look forward and take it all in?
Replaced by robots
The Economist recently described the emergence of the new, AI-dominated workplace. Lie detectors are already employed in the hiring of people, while workers’ efficiency on the keyboard is being analysed. The software company Workday sells AI software crunching some 60 factors that can predict the loyalty and potential of workers. Warehouses will soon start employing Amazon’s smart wristbands, which monitor the movements of workers and vibrate if they’re not efficient enough. Another AI programme enables employers to read their workers’ emails to prevent them from hurting their company’s interests. And if that’s not bad enough, the programme known as Slack – «searchable log of all conversation and knowledge» – analyses how quickly workers complete their tasks. The question seems to be: Do you want to be replaced by a robot or start being treated like one?
Capturing the sun
The latest edition of the Norwegian journal Vagant engages with utopias of the future and the relationship between man and machine. Among the many thoughtful contributions is Eirik Høyer Leivestad’s essay on the philosopher Nicolai Fyodorov (1829 – 1903) and his «cosmism». To Fyodorov (and the many futurists who came after him), the essential issue facing man was that of survival and immortality: «The new superman emerges by trying to capture the sun.» The technologically improved human would be a «time-traveller». God is dead – to quote Nietzsche – and the stage was set for colonising the heavens and the takeover of man and machines. The futurists of the 1920s saw the new man as «partly mechanised to perfection»– a happy robot. The Bolsheviks first 5-year plan thus included the following blueprint for the Soviet coal workers: «Housed in large living and working units, with dormitories, communal areas for social life, and the mechanised distribution of food.» Precisely regulated bodies following a precise time schedule. While that plan was left on the drawing board, Stalin would later implement such utopias through large-scale slave projects, claiming that technology would be the ultimate arbiter.
Humans are obviously too stupid to survive.
Leivestad wanders («Vagant» – to wander) back in time in his examination of the future: Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star depicts volunteer workers happily engaged in industrialised farming on Mars – a rational system governed by automatic statistical registration, where «a centralised proto-computer distributes information in accordance with the needs of the system.»
Today, believers in ecological progress are trying to capture the sun by dispatching reflectors to counter the greenhouse effect. The starry-eyed tech-incubators from Silicon Valley, with their new crypto-currencies, their blockchain technology and their AI which begets even more AI, provides us with many similar visions.
In Vagant we can also read the Norwegian philosopher Anders Dunker’s interview with the sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. In Robinson’s Mars trilogy, the 24th Century inhabitants of the red planet refer to earth as «a shipwrecked planet.» Robinson suggests to Dunker that we live with «a cruel optimism».. We keep telling ourselves that everything is going to work out while simultaneously destroying the earth, with an attitude that humans are obviously too stupid to survive. Robinson adds that even if two billion people may be said to inhabit utopia already, also at least as many are suffering. Most desire freedom and solidarity, but old elites unfortunately cling on to their privileges.
AI and the belief in progress has its HQ in Silicon Valley. According to The Economist, an AI expert there can be worth anything between 40 and 80 million NOK! As Truls Unholt points out in the latest edition of Vagant, the origins of the AI hub can be traced back to the 1968 uprising against commercialisation. Today it’s characterised by a mix of «technology optimism, idealism, youth rebellion, venture capital, Eastern-inspired spirituality» and a desire for cleaner sources of energy.
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