I was bored yesterday and wrote a little summary of my thoughts for the future. This was partially inspired by the upcoming Singapore General Election taking place tomorrow and a certain online conservation I had with someone. After I finished writing it, I realized that it bears some similarities to the Dune timeline, so perhaps I was just agreeing with Frank Herbert.
In a future when all jobs of lower complexity than astrophysicists have been replaced by robots, conglomerates that own robots and their patents will reap the benefit of virtually all economic activities on the planet, while regular people can offer no value to the system. A tiny number of humans hold the few high-complexity jobs needed and are genetically superior in those roles due to generations of selection.
The masses soon realize that they have been made obsolete. A neo-Marxist revolution sweeps across the planet and great wars are fought, but the many cannot defeat the few. The corporations have centuries of technological advantage in their favour and their self-replicating machines swiftly put an end to the insurrections. The rebels are disarmed and ejected from the system.
With its obsolescence made official, most of humanity slowly regresses to pre-industrial subsistence-level economies. Civilization for most returns to small isolated communities. Even basic technology like fossil fuels and computers disappear with time because the exploitation of the planet’s natural resources is monopolized by the corporations whose robotic armies forcefully defend their subjectless fiefdoms.
The corporations wall themselves off in massive robotized vertical cities and mostly ignore the rest of humanity, occasionally sending expeditions into the wild to harvest feral human specimens for body parts and genetic material or clearing land to make room for industrial expansion.
Eventually, the corporate overlords evolve into a symbiotic relationship with machines and cease to be fully organic, gaining in the process physiological traits suitable for deep space voyages that cannot be duplicated organically. The evolved humanity leaves Earth after its crust has been almost completely emptied of useful compounds and before it is consumed by a dying sun. To the stars!
In the alternate timeline, Earth takes a hit from a giant meteor and humanity goes extinct in 2012.
I suppose the real alternative scenario is some kind of socialist paradise where the combined productivity of machines is more than sufficient to be distributed evenly across a humanity and free it from its eternal struggle to earn a living to either drown in hedonistic pleasures or pursue knowledge and science.
And I suppose this is more likely to happen if advancements and breakthroughs in technology are made accessible to everyone rapidly enough that no single sub-community has enough time to build a giant army of self-replicating killer robots before the rest have at least learnt how to build regular killer robots. Perhaps this is the real reason why patent terms should be as short as possible.
Just think about it. One day, a corporation similar to Isaac Asimov’s U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. will be making tons of robots and conducting massive research into robotics and A.I. Everyone will think that robots are super awesome, so whenever Robotics Inc. sues some small-time robotics lab for infringing one of its ten trillion patents, people will just go “oh Sony Robots Inc., you so crazy” and return to enjoying their cup of coffee brewed by their robot butler while posting silly crap like this on Facetablet (because the concept of books no longer exist of course).
Eventually Robotics Inc. decides that it is no longer in its economic interest to have customers when they reach the tipping point where they can just make robots to create wealth passively. And before you know it, everyone else has been made obsolete.
Okay, so the real future will probably be somewhat different. But putting aside the details, let’s consider the big picture and the natural of power dynamics in human societies.
Kings and emperors derived their power from the people. People were stupider and more ignorant in the past, so this mandate was easy to get through coercion. Eventually, this transformed into a more democratic and equal relationship and we now have the idea of a “social contract” between the government and its people. But still, the point is that people living at the top of social hierarchies are rich and comfortable only because people below them are economically productive. Smart kings, presidents, CEOs and even dictators all recognize this fact and therefore seek to retain the loyalty and productivity of their subjects, citizens and workers through either incentives or threats.
But technology changes this relationship. Every worker replaced by a robot is one whose opinions and needs no longer matter to the person at the top. Today a person can operate a crane to do what once required dozens of people to perform. With an army of robots, it is not inconceivable for a single person or corporation to someday run an entire economy. Capitalism kind of breaks down in that system, because that corporation will no longer need consumers. Money and wealth are ultimately just means to secure an end in an economy of many productive parties, but this hypothetical corporation is basically omnipotent and needs nothing from others.
Sure, we are far from this scenario as long as artificial intelligence remains as crappy as it is today. But consider the effects of globalization: we have increasing rich-poor divides because people higher up in the economic hierarchy benefit greatly from moving low-skill jobs to the third world while people at the lower end are mostly screwed. Think third-world sweat shops are unfair competition? Just imagine what will happen when we have self-replicating, self-maintaining robot workers.
Everyone needs a college degree to get a job now. When the economy becomes fully automated, every remaining job will require at least a PhD. There certainly won’t be enough of such positions to go around for 10 billion people unless we expand massively into space.
Actually this is sounding more and more like the fundamental ideas behind Marxism, but with robots. Oh shit.
Sometimes I think crazy. I think I’m probably missing some key argument. The future can’t be that bleak.