Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rise of the Machines

I like to think that I'm pretty reasonable in most circumstances. I'm not generally given to hyperbole or paranoia. Sure, I talk occasionally about how conservatives and Republicans and Christians and Muslims are going to be the end of the world, what with their repressive social agendas, their thirst for war and general disdain for science and rationality. But although I do truly believe those things about those groups to varying degrees, I don't really think that the world is going to end. Sure, the oceans may rise, polar bears may go extinct, Israel and Iran may bomb the Middle East into rubble, same-sex marriage may never be legal in South Carolina and women may have to cross state lines to get a legal abortion. But the world and the human race will plod forward in some fashion. History is full of peaks and valleys and I'm sure that the 21st century will be no exception. When I say otherwise I am merely talking out of frustration, not insanity.

So when I speculate about the future of humanity in the face of technology, I am merely posing a question. I don't actually think that we are about to create SkyNet and go toe to toe with militarized robots in a struggle for our survival. But I have to wonder about our role in the future. Specifically, how will (what I perceive to be) the natural ends of Capitalism and industry leave humans? Capitalism and industry work together in symbiotic unison, each using the other to advance.

This is the part where I'm afraid I'll sound paranoid and delusional: please remember that this is just a question for discussion.

Technology has been rendering humans redundant and superfluous at an increasing pace. From the wheel to animal domestication to engines to computers, each step seeks to replace expensive and hungry and needy human labor with a well-behaved, reliable machine. Of course, there have always been plenty of jobs for humans to perform, but it isn't at all certain to me that this will continue to be the case. Manufacturing jobs are largely performed by machines and, in places where they aren't it is because human labor is either less expensive or more intuitive. But as technology improves and gets cheaper, this will be less and less true.

And there are plenty of cases where human involvement is simply a hindrance. If mass transit could be reinvented from the ground up, I'm sure that human input would be extremely minimal. It doesn't take much imagination to envision technology advancing to overtake virtually any current human tasks: pilots, maintenance workers, cooks, farmers, soldiers, firemen. All of these jobs may not be vulnerable just yet, but I don't think it is outrageous to suggest that they never will be.

Certainly humans have imagination and art and passion and curiosity, so there may always be gainful employment for some humans. Perhaps there will always be places for scientists and musicians and politicians, but are there really enough of those jobs for 8 billion people? My question is this: what will we do when machines do all of our jobs and hundreds of millions of people are no longer able to find work? Will our technology cause our population to actually shrink? Will we become a society of science surrounded by technology?

I want a time machine!

1 comment:

Ed said...

If you haven't read Player Piano (Kurt Vonnegut's first novel) you ought to!