The world is changing. Humans have two main types of marketable labor: manual labor and knowledge-based labor. In the pre-industrial era, virtually everyone that was working was doing manual labor. The industrial revolution arrived and threatened everyone’s earning potential. People famously predicted massive unemployment as the workers were replaced with machines and left with nothing to do. This didn’t come to pass, however, because the population exploded, quality of life increased exponentially, and eventually a large percentage of the workforce transitioned to knowledge-based jobs. Within a couple generations there were office buildings full of people, shuffling paper around and doing myriad other tasks that required no manual labor. Fast forward to the 21st century, and there is very little manual labor left (at least in the West). It seems that the concern of large swaths of people with nothing to do never materialized. Free(ish)-market capitalism solved this problem by facilitating the exchange of ever-more advanced necessities.
Now we are on the horizon of another revolution: the artificial intelligence revolution. Artificial intelligence is an interesting thing. Consider a baby. Babies are born into this world with very little working knowledge or intelligence. In everything they do they are imbibing information about a world they know almost nothing about. Totally helpless and dependent on others for every single need. Now imagine I told you that this baby had some very special abilities. When it reaches the age of 30, it will stop aging. Its body will remain healthy indefinitely and it will retain the neuroplasticity (ability to learn new things) of its youth. This person will continue to accumulate knowledge and get better and better at every task. No imagine this person lived a hundred million years in the current environment, slowly becoming an expert in everything that is worth knowing. They are now smarter than everyone else on earth combined. This is analogous to the inexorable advancement of AI. We are at the precipice of an AI explosion, but for the time-being, we’re just looking at it and chuckling at its incompetence - we say “Alexa, add roast beef to my shopping list”, it answers back “I’ve added toast beef to your shopping list” - ha! What a hoot these so-called “artificial intelligences” are! They seem so dim-witted and contextually vacant that you have to look up what things you can say to them because you’re unlikely to stumble on them in any other way. But eventually they will get good – really, really good. Then I predict we will be briefly satisfied. Once Alexa is indistinguishable from your new neighbor, she will definitely be more helpful! Now that she’s grown from baby-level intelligence to adult-level intelligence, things feel like they are on the right track. Unfortunately, though, she doesn’t stop getting smarter and you do. AI is likely to increase in ability at an exponential rate. While you spend 8 hours sleeping (or 5 in my case), AI in a lab somewhere has spent a thousand years of equivalent time learning everything on Wikipedia, and with the time left over, it has spilled out into the greater internet, soaking up everything in sight.
Once AI does everything better than you do, faster and at a lower cost, your knowledge-based labor is obsolete. I do think we will adapt, and I do think this gloomy-colored future will be more utopian than dystopian, but it will require some serious consideration and planning. We will not be the smartest species on the planet for long, and we will need to ensure that the AI’s priorities are aligned with our own.