Our blogger and guest podcaster Daniel referred in response to my previous post that EconTalk with host Russ Roberts (pictured) and guest Robin Hanson of George Mason University did an episode on “The Technological Singularity.”
The idea here is that at a few points in history, there’s been a technological breakthrough that fundamentally transformed how people can live, which in turn led to a massive growth in population, creation of wealth, and a fairly rapid overturning of much of previous culture. The last time this happened was the industrial revolution, and before that, the development of farming. Hanson theorizes that the same would happen with development of sufficient artificial intelligence that most work could be pushed off onto robots: not only manufacturing jobs like at present, but services like cutting hair and driving taxis and, ultimately, product design. At this point, yes, the whole point would be sucked out of the job system as it currently exists, and we’d be forced to figure out some alternate way of structuring our lives.
Hanson doesn’t think this would be so unprecedented: there are people now who are rich enough that they don’t have to work for money, but yet still tend to fill their time very productively. There’s also a hint that there would have to be some redistribution of wealth to help out those whose only current asset is their ability to sell their labor, but, really, if wealth is so abundant, surely we can work that out and in any case we don’t have to worry about that yet. (This is what I’m reading into Hanson, anyway.)
However, much of the rest of the podcast is devoted to talking about how difficult it is to create artificial intelligence: how it’s not just a matter of us getting fast enough hardware to accommodate it, but that there’s a fundamental conceptual gap right now. Hubert Dreyfus has a lot to say about this.
So while the podcast begins with this idea (at least this was my impression) that the singularity is inevitable: the well-circulated thought that technology increases exponentially, such that very rapidly our culture is going to become unrecognizable, but then the discussion makes it sound like no, such a revolution is dependent upon a technological advance that is actually pretty unlikely, i.e. this is all just idle speculation.
I’ll write more about Bergmann’s “New Work,” soon, but there’s nothing in it that necessitates having intelligent machines, and, just to head off this point that people jumped to in the comments to my last points, it doesn’t entail socialism or any change in our ostensible system of government, or that the government even be the key player in enacting a solution. As this EconTalk podcast demonstrates, it’s possible that the change could be entirely on the model of the current rise of the Internet, which did require some regulations and things to get it going and keep it “neutral,” but which was mostly engendered by academia (and the military? I’m not actually so solid on my history of the Internet) and pushed into major use by forces both capitalistic and… well… volunteerism of the same sort that makes this podcast/blog and a million others like it run strong. This is just an analogy of course, but the point is that history gives us a number of models of social change, and any way that does not require Congress to do anything is going to be much easier.