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.
«The new workplace is dominated by heavy investments in AI»
But what did we get? Alongside omnipresent sensors, electronical footprints following us from the cradle to the grave and the Internet of things, AI’s algorithms and forms of «intelligence» has begun permeating our environment, while our lives are virtualised in the tech giants’ computing clouds through smart phones and Big Data. International research programmes are currently trying to decode our brain activity so as to bring forth old «memories» – and create new ones. We will thus see new forms of digital immortality, or a kind of digital permanence, in Unholdt’s words. Let me repeat his quote from Norwegian author Thure Erik Lund’s book Identity: «Man keeps dying, while his digital ghost […] keeps living and unfolding itself within digital life structures.»
The technologically improved human would be a «time-traveller».
Leivestad points out to Fyodorov that man was faced with one problem from which all other problems arose: Death. Fyodorov saw death as an error that could be remedied. The «great common task» was to strive towards immortality. Well, he probably realised that this would also make the world a pretty crowded place…
Vagant – and its hardworking Norwegian editor Audun Lindholm, who lives in Berlin – is the journal that refuses to die. Lindholm enjoys the support of many intellectual workers, Scandinavian vagrants who meet up in Copenhagen or Berlin. One may wonder whether they believe in progress while looking out at our shipwrecked planet?
For all the dreams of immortality people still die, of course, but the funeral services of the future are already here. In the US, the baby boomers ensure that the funeral industry – already worth 125 billion USD a year – will keep on growing. The urn and the coffin are delivered by Amazon – the company that is currently employing advanced AI in the logistics system delivering a third of America’s online orders. A 100 people die every minute. So, shall we bury our dead or burn them? According to The Economist, in the US nearly 4 out of 5 people are now cremated, while in countries like Ireland and Italy it’s the opposite: 4 out of 5 are buried. But what about the funeral rites – like the ones we witnessed during Barbara Bush’s recent interment? The zeitgeist suggests opting for cremation without the coffin, like David Bowie did two years ago. That alone would save the US some 70.000 cubic metres of firewood a year. But increasingly heavy bodies also require more energy to burn; a single cremation can send 300 kilos of carbon – the equivalent of a 20-hour car drive – into the atmosphere. New, flameless, «green» methods therefore dissolve bodies and crush bones to dust, according to The Economist. Others pay to have the ashes conveyed 30 kilometres into the atmosphere by using balloons. Unless you’re one of those who want a pair of earrings made of your mother’s melted ash, so that you can bring her with you everywhere. And if you have 500 dollars, you can get a little capsule in stainless steel containing the DNA of your loved ones.
«Fyodorov saw death as an error that could be remedied.»
Facebook now operates «Memorialised Accounts», where the deceased’s accounts can be kept open, the final status update still visible on the screen. The programme Cake, meanwhile, allows people to make requests towards the end of their lives – a third of them opts to keep their Facebook accounts open. In Finland, the practice of streaming funerals online has gained popularity, allowing everyone to be virtually present. If you want to save the video, FuneralOne is ready to help.
As Robert Hertz wrote in 1907, we have two lives – one lived in nature, one in culture. The latter is becoming increasingly immortal due to the internet. You can ask for virtual candlesticks that last longer or order a QR code for your tombstone so that smart phones can quickly establish who you were.
One thing is as certain as death: The digital control exerted over people’s lives, the robots that are replacing workers, humanity’s increasing striving for human immortality and the new «life forms» spreading artificial intelligence all form part of a new reality that will never die.