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ON SOCIAL IMPACTS OF FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES

We are living in a post-modern world where we acknowledge the fact that there is no single narrative of history or an idealized state of being, where we are ultimately heading to. The death of god [1] did not mean the victory of reason, nor did the downfall of Soviet Union mean the end of history [2]. Instead, there are multiple possible paths to future, and the idealized state of being is always contingent on the social reality that varies in time and space.

That being said – the current fourth industrial revolution will fundamentally revolutionize and reorganize the social structures and division of labour we live in [3]. What the future will look like, however, depends on us. We are not mere passive bystanders – future is shaped by us. For instance, will there be genetically engineered superhumans or upgraded cyborgs living amongst us, and who will be entitled, or even forced, to use these new exponential technologies? The answer is a matter of choice. We need in-depth and analytical dialogue on the ethics, impact and future of technology – and we need it now [4].

 

Current Paradigm

When we think how the future will look like, we need to consider the current state of affairs. The global order is, at this day and age, built on two major ‘isms: capitalism and humanism [5]. Capitalism dictates the way we organize production, and humanist ideals define why we produce anything at all. Everything we do and produce should aim at the betterment of human existence: not gods’, nor states’, but humans’.

We do not know will these two ‘isms be the main ‘isms of the future – we do see opposing battle cries around the globe, but to have any meaningful dialogue, these need to be the starting point. In the following, I will go through some of the most pressing questions and concerns we need to solve.

 

Artificial Intelligence Will Shake Our World

Artificial intelligence (AI) can be divided into three main groups: weak AI, general AI, and strong AI. Weak AI is something that we have seen for a while. It does simple tasks like park you car, or answer questions on your iPhone as Siri.

General AI is defined as an intellect that can perform tasks at the same level as a human being. General consensus states that this would require AI to use reason, have knowledge, plan, learn, communicate, and combine these skills to obtain goals [6]. The median year when we will have a general AI, according to a large scale survey of experts, is 2040 [7]. At this point, many jobs that we have thought to be beyond automation, will be lost. Doctors, lawyers, and even educators are at risk [8]. The future of the whole concept of work can be questioned. If robots can do manual labor, and general AI all the thinking, do we even need to work? Or does work have value in and of itself?

Due to the scalability of computing power, after reaching general AI, the path to strong AI will be extremely fast. Strong artificial intelligence will likely be the single most revolutionary technology humanity has, or ever will, create. This is an intellect that far surpasses human intelligence [9]. We have no visibility beyond this point. Even to comprehend an intellect that surpasses our own capabilities, is hard. General AI will already shake our social structures, but the potential social impact is vastly different at the strong AI level. What if, for instance, the super intelligence decides humans are a nuisance altogether? We have no idea what will happen if singularity occurs.

 

The Merging of Man and Machine

Imagine merging yourself with technology in a way that would allow you to experience super intelligence as a part of your own consciousness. With neurotechnology, we can already increase and fix our sensory and motor capabilities, for instance, move a robotic arm – but the truly revolutionary applications are still coming.

By merging man and machine, neurotechnology has the potential to increase our cognitive capabilities – significantly. To some this may sound like science fiction, but it truly is in the realm of possible futures. In fact, Elon Musk has already established a company called Neuralink, which is developing whole new kind of computer-brain interfaces [10]. Take a moment to ponder how it would feel to be hundred, or even thousand times smarter than you are now. What could you achieve?

In the beginning, all new technologies are expensive and in the hands of a few. When it comes to computer-brain interfaces, the impacts on society when only some people are super intelligent can be catastrophic. If the already wealthy and powerful can become even more so with the help of newly acquired mental capabilities, the future might look bleak for the have-nots.

We would also need to think of the people who would like to remain “natural”. Could a new type of discrimination emerge? Could a company, for instance, demand it’s employees to implant mind altering chips?

 

Towards Inclusive Dialogue

The fourth industrial revolution will reorganize social structures and division of labor. In the not so far future, when robots do the heavy lifting and AI the heavy thinking, we might not need to work at all. Who will reap the benefits and how do we distribute our wealth are extremely important questions. Will the social reality clash with the major ‘ism of today, capitalism?

Technology can be the best or the worst thing for humans. It may take us to far away planets and deepen our understanding of the whole of existence. Or it might wipe us out in a blink of an eye. How we will regulate technological development, and build safeguards, are maybe the most important issues of the future. As the humanist values dictate, technology needs to serve the betterment of human existence.

Taking into consideration the slowness of democratic systems in decision making, not to mention negotiating agreements on the international level, inclusive dialogue on the implications and ethics of new technologies need to be brought into the public agenda. This discussion needs everybody. We cannot wait any longer.

 

 

SHIFT Business Festival – A Forum for Shaping the Future

 

Future is a matter of choice. SHIFT is a forum where industry meets tech to actively shape the future. Join us as we discuss the plan for action!

Written by Elia Elenius. Follow Elia on Twitter.

Notes

[1] While Nietzsche’s statement ‘god is dead’ is largely true, the rise of fundamentalism, for instance in the form of ISIS, is a proof that a reverse development is also possible.

[2] Francis Fukuyama famously claimed in his 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man” that the collapse of Soviet Union represented an end of history, where (western) liberal democratic system had won. As, for instance, the rise of China has proven, this is hardly the case.

[3] The founder of World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab discusses the potential implications of 4th industrial revolution to the society in his book “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”. A short blog post summarizing the main thesis can be found on the WEF website here: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-what-it-means-and-how-to-respond/

[4] For instance, futurist Gerd Leonhard, who spoke at the 2016 SHIFT Business Festival, argues in his 2014 book “Technology vs. Humanity: The Coming Clash Between Man and Machine” that the discussion on the future of tech should be the main thing on the public agenda.

[5] Yuval Noah Harari goes so far as to equate capitalism and humanism to religion, in his 2015 book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”.
[6] See, for example: Russell, S.J., Norvig, P. (2016). Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (3rd ed.) / Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

[7] See, for example: Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. / Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[8] In Bostrom, N. (1998). How long before superintelligenceInternational Journal of Future Studies, vol 2., Bostrom defines super intelligence as “an intellect that is much smarter than the best human brains in practically every field, including scientific creativity, general wisdom and social skills.”

[9] I argued in my previous blog that AI is here to make you unemployed: https://blog.theshift.fi/artificial-intelligence-is-here-to-make-you-unemployed

[10] Waitbutwhy.com has published an extensive and in depth article on Neuralink and it’s possibilities: https://waitbutwhy.com/2017/04/neuralink.html

Text: Elia