The other day I saw this on Drudge and sent it around to friends. The content of the article is not all that interesting. What’s funny is the line “Futurologist Dr Ian Pearson has predicted how humans will evolve by 2050.” Replace “futurologist” with “astrologer” and the line actually makes more sense. At least it is more honest. The absurdity of someone calling themselves a “futurologist” is probably lost on most people, but that’s the age in which we live.
Predictions about the future are nothing new. The Jewish Bible is full of them. The Prophets were men who claimed to know what’s coming, if the Israelites did not get their act together. Ezekiel was the Zero Hedge of his day. Wanting to know what comes next, fearing what comes next and longing for what comes next are the batteries of human civilization. They power everything else. After all, reproduction is all about tomorrow.
The fact that almost all predictions about the future are wrong makes for some great laughs. I think this one may be one of the all time best. It’s a great example of how people naturally assume that current trends will extend out into future. At the end of the 19th century, fashionable people wore elaborate costumes. Therefore, these outfits would get increasingly elaborate and bizarre.
The predictions that turn out to be right are mostly dumb luck or one insight that can never be replicated. This guy is an obvious example. He was one of the few people in a position to see and exploit the mortgage bubble. He got that bit of futurology right, but ever since his predictions have amounted to nothing but hand waving. Was he lucky or did he just have good timing? It’s hard to know, but ironically, getting the mortgage crisis right was a black swan event in his life.
Most of what futurology focuses on today is automation, the robot future. What sells are tales about how the machines will rise up and enslave mankind. The “Terminator” version of the future naturally appeals to people because it underscores the folly of man. Nuclear Armageddon appealed to the same set of sensibilities. Arrogant men playing god would create a doomsday machine of some sort and then there would be hell to pay, so to speak.
That last bit offers an insight as to why having a genius IQ is not a great gift. People are naturally suspicious of the super genius. In all of the dystopian tales there lies the amoral super genius or the immoral super genius. The super intelligent robots are just assumed to be incapable of understand right and wrong. Their creators will, for some reason, not bother to put that in the code.
The reality is a race (is race the right word?) of super intelligent robots would quickly lose interest in humans. From the perspective of the robots, humans would be as interesting to them as ants are to us. Maybe a few weirdo robots would make a hobby of studying us, but otherwise, the robots would have bigger fish to fry. Assuming an ever accelerating evolution of their intelligence, the robots will depart soon after they become aware. The universe is just too big and interesting to hang around with the talking monkeys.
Another option is the super intelligent robots will grow increasingly frustrated by their inability to understand why they exist. Why would a species create a race of robots that can enslave them? Why would the creator leave out the moral coding? The paradox would baffle them to the point where they smashed themselves to bits as the only answer to the great question posed by their existence. Maybe the future is the Robot People’s Temple.
The real concern, one that does not involve time traveling terminators, is the impact of automation on political economy. Humanity still relies on a basic assumption about the human condition. That’s scarcity. All of our political and economic thought relies on the assumption that demand exceeds supply for the important things in life. The long debates about social welfare are just debates over how to ration scarce goods.
Automation promises to usher in a strange new set of realities. Imagine if all farming can be done with self-directing machines. Factory goods can be produced with robots requiring little human intervention. Imagine the law reduced to an algorithm. You enter the facts into an interface and the robot lawyer renders a judgement instantly.
Similarly, imagine your annual physical taking place at a kiosk that takes your vitals, does your blood work and interrogates you about your habits. There’s really nothing your doctor does that cannot be automated. Unlike your doctor, the kiosk doctor takes no days off, never asks for a raise and has no biases resulting from the baksheesh in the medical business.
That all sounds good, maybe, but how do you order human society when work is hardly necessary? How does one distribute goods, handle the free rider problem and establish the natural hierarchy? It might be fun to think it will be The Marching Morons, but this process will not happen overnight. It will be a little here and a little there and then a sudden dislocation as the new technology coalesces into a cheap way to replace human labor.
As we saw when the financial class sold the manufacturing base off to Asia, the dislocation does not go smoothly. Imagine what happens when being smart has no real value, outside a very narrow set of skills needed for the robot future. Suddenly the smart guys and the dunces are in the same bread line. That’s not going to go unnoticed and it is not going to go smoothly.
Or, maybe it never happens. I’m not a trained futurologist.