We have some problems to deal with.
Global warming, poverty, economic collapse, general environmental destruction, diminishing resources, and lets not forget that we’re still sitting on an unreasonably large stockpile of awe-inspiring super weapons. If you have been paying attention, then you know that if we want to survive on this planet, now might be a good time for us to start thinking about long term plans.
But how can we ever deal with problems as immense as global warming or poverty?
Contrary to the popular expression, I don’t think that the first step in dealing with any problem is accepting that you have a problem, rather you must first accept that you are not helpless. Regardless of what problems you face, you must first identify your own ability to change yourself and your world. Learned helplessness is a psychological state wherein we begin to believe that failure has become inevitable and insurmountable. Perhaps, this same psychological fault that drives individuals to give up in the face of their problems, is partly what prevents us from collectively facing the wider problems of the world.
The belief that humans are essential impotent in the face of the power of nature is deep within our psyche. It likely doesn’t help that this view was basically true for all of history. Humans have always been at the mercy of any earthquake, flood, storm, drought, famine etc… In the face of such a malevolent environment, one can see how we would have developed a sense of helplessness about our environment.
But in the modern world where we have accomplished so many incredible things, is there really any justification for such a pessimistic view? In a world where we regularly perform magical feats like flying through the air from one place to another, or beaming pictures of ourselves across the world in mere fractions of a moment etc… We created the airplane, television, atomic bomb, and the internet in the same century!
These great technologies give us all immense power. By one estimate, an average westerner has access to the energy equivalent of around 100 or 150 slaves. At no time ever have so many had access to so much.
So, if we accept that we are not helpless, and that we have the power to solve our problems, then we must next ask the next question – how?
This is where the robots come in.
Soon the many menial jobs will be replaced with computers. We will be able to get far more done for far less cost. It may not be an easy transition for the economy but that makes no difference, if a robot can do your job, you will be replaced. Driven by continued advances in computers and robotics, as well as things like 3D printing the cost to make things will continue to plummet. Many of us already have access to most of the things we could ever want… soon everyone could.
But what are we to do with this economic boon? I would argue that we can and must become better people. Technology gives us immense new power, but it is up to us to decide how we will use it.
Now is the time we must act. If we allow the automation revolution to progress in a moral vacuum as with the industrial revolution, we will be risking everything. Automation has even more of the disruptive potential that was brought to bear by industrialization.
The obvious example of this disruptive capacity is the acceleration of job loss, which may already be outpacing the rate at which new jobs are created. If we fail to address the fundamental problem of wealth inequality in the age of automation, we risk total economic collapse.
If we continue to cling to our medieval belief that economic hardship is mainly brought on by laziness and ineptitude then we risk losing everything we have worked so hard to build. In a world of untold riches, success need no longer be justified through villainizing failure.
Just as automation has the potential magnify our economic sins, environmental destruction could be similarly accelerated. If the industrialization enabled us to destroy a mountain in search of riches, automation could allow us to destroy a mountain range. If lax regulation allowed industry to pollute a entire river, automation could pollute an entire ocean.
World war II showed the world the terrifying efficiency with which the military industrial complex can extinguish human life. I shudder at the potential power that an automated army could unleash upon the world.
Automation will give us more power then we have ever known, and as the old saying goes “with great power comes great responsibility”. It is up to us to imbue our technological world with morality. If we don’t expect automation to make the world healthier, safer and fairer, then it will almost certainly make it dirtier, more unstable, and more polarized.
Technology will serve to magnify our successes and our sins, it is up to us to choose which ones.