Friday, May 6, 2016

How AI will force us to confront our purpose in the Universe.


AI is a hot topic these days.

Everything from self driving cars to robotic surgery seems to be making headlines.

Along with the amazement of an automated future, something troubling has simultaneously arisen.

If AI can do everything humans can do, but better... what do the humans do?

Many articles discuss how humans will potentially become more creatively focused, we will awaken our intrinsic motivations instead of constantly focusing on extrinsic rewards. Switzerland is voting on a referendum to give every citizen $2600/mo tax free. While unlikely to pass, other cities are already experimenting with the idea of "basic income."

Those experiments and ideas are not directly related to AI per se, but they do reflect a long term trend in machines taking over work from humans.

What started in the industrial revolution in manufacturing has slowly been swallowing up more and more work. This shows up as a general term of "efficiency" but I think what it really represents is replacing human effort with non-human effort.

Whether, and to what extent, this is "good" or "bad" is subject to interpretation. On the one hand having a machine that can harvest corn is far more efficient than having hundreds of people doing it by hand. It also frees those people from the repetitive and uncomfortable job of harvesting corn by hand. However, if your life is dependent on you harvesting corn by hand, this replacement is a mixed blessing at best.


Something that makes these transitions even more painful is that they tend to happen quite quickly. In the US, for example, we have seen the manufacturing workforce shrink in size and reduce in costs while increasing output. This happened within a few decades leaving many millions of people without a way to replace the income they had from the previous occupations, regardless of how dangerous, repetitive and unrewarding they may have been. One could argue that there are people who genuinely love this kind of work, but I suspect for most it was a comparatively good income that was the main attraction.

It's easy to come up with simple and cavalier solutions.

Free from the toil of tedious manufacturing work, they are free to train for new, more exciting positions. But practically how does this work? Without the income from the previous job how does one pay for retraining? And even if one had the means to retrain, how will one find the time while having another position to keep one's life going? And of course there are the legion practical difficulties of relearning something late in one's career.

We can also take the position that market forces will work this out. Sure, a few people will be victims of technological progress, but from a broader social point of view, it's a small price to pay. Well... maybe.


Up until now, technology has primarily focused on replacing physical jobs. Almost all technology from the industrialization period on (and before) have focused on replacing physical human effort with machines. The wheel, the lever, the printing press, Railroads, automobiles and trucks, robots on assembly lines, and so on have slowly replaced humans, even as the work moved from country to country as companies chased low cost labor as a way to compete with each other.

The rise of the machines has been relentless, rapid and broad.

With AI though, the replacement could be much broader. It could start to include so-called "knowledge workers." People like meteorologists, lawyers, real estate agents, doctors, financial advisors, pharmacists, programmers etc. may find themselves increasing replaced with semi-intelligent learning machines. Beyond that more "complex" jobs such as drivers, pilots, and soldiers may find themselves replaced by more comprehensive and cheaper robotic alternatives. Indeed, the idea of replacing drivers was unthinkable even as little as 10 years ago... now it seems almost certain.

These are no longer physically demanding and grueling jobs... these are the so-called "good" jobs that humans are "built for."

But if we replace all of these jobs with cheaper, more efficient alternatives, what should those people train to do? Is there something beyond "knowledge work" which humans are better at that is even more desirable and rewarding?


Ok. So maybe further down the line we become a species of creative expression and invention. No longer limited by physical needs or even mental needs we can essentially "do what we want." Putting aside the economic problems that this may spark, let's imagine what this may look like.

Perhaps people can focus on music or painting or sports or invention. Personally rewarding, creative and entertaining pursuits that still give personal meaning as well as social value.

But what if the machines can do that as well?

What if an AI can compose BETTER music, paint a BETTER painting and play a BETTER game of basketball? What then?

What if we develop an AI that can find the cure for cancer? Or figure out how to colonize Mars? Or how to travel faster than light?

What if in a few hundred or a few thousand years we just watch in awe as our creation grows far beyond our wildest dreams?

And why wouldn't this happen?

The incentive for making the best is what drives this from it's origin, isn't it?

If machines are better at the physical, and then better at the cognitive, why can't they also be better at the creative?

I think they can, and I think they will.


So I think it's worth turning this around.

Why are we making these machines at all? Is it to make life "better." Better for whom? And what is better exactly? Less toil? Less suffering? Less pain? Is it about making things easier and safer?

Is it for our continued survival as a species?

Ok. Let's assume that's true... once we've checked off "survival" as a goal, does it become about maximizing comfort and satisfaction?

But again, we must face the eternal why.

Let's imagine an absurd world where an army of perfect robots can provide us with every need, solve every problem, advance technology faster than we ever could and, more importantly, improve itself FASTER than we can improve them. And let's imagine that their sole purpose is to fulfill our human desires.

What does that world look like?

If the end result of our current trajectory is to lead a life of leisure and consumption, why should we exist at all? Beyond the pure personal experience, what is the difference between living a life of pure indulgent consumption and living no life at all?

Don't get me wrong... people could and would still fulfill their desires. They could still paint and make music. They could still program and tinker with new technology. All that would be completely possible, but it would make as much difference to the AI robots as a group of ants collecting chips on the floor.


Well... of course I don't know, and neither do you.

Perhaps there isn't one. Perhaps "purpose" is the evolutionary requirement in our minds to keep the species going. It's what causes us to behave in the ways we do, invent the things we invent in order to keep the genes passing from one generation to the next; building up to the next evolutionary leap.  Perhaps that illusion is so deeply implanted into us that we can't escape it even if we are completely aware of it.

Perhaps we are just one dot in the chain of evolution and once we replace the slow, biological evolutionary advances with the more rapid and exponential technical ones... we will have served our purpose and, like the dinosaurs before us, we should be eliminated to make way for another species to have it's chance.

And maybe that is purpose enough.

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