Bumps on the road to the Economic Singularity



Two Singularities

SingularityVon Neumann

The term “singularity” was first applied to the impact of technology on human affairs back in the 1950s by John von Neuman, one of the founding fathers of computing. He took it from maths and physics, where it means a point at which a variable becomes infinite. The centre of a black hole is a singularity because matter becomes infinitely dense. When you reach a singularity, the normal rules break down, and the future becomes even harder to predict than usual.

Since you are reading this blog, you are probably familiar with the concept of the Technological Singularity, most commonly thought of as the time when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses humans in cognitive ability and superintelligence arrives on the planet. If you are not familiar with that (and even if you are, to be honest), I humbly recommend my previous book, “Surviving AI”.

The papers these days are awash with articles about a different potential impact of AI: technological unemployment, in which intelligent machines take over human jobs and we all become not only unemployed, but unemployable. Most economists dismiss this as the Luddite Fallacy: we have had automation for centuries, they argue, and it has not caused lasting unemployment. They are of course right about that, but the question is whether it will be different this time. In my new book I argue that yes, it is different this time because this time the machines are coming for our cognitive jobs. And unlike us, they are doubling their capability every 18 months or so.

I also argue that the impact of automation of jobs by machine intelligence will be so profound that it deserves to be called a Singularity – the Economic Singularity

Of the people who do agree with the claim that it is different this time, many are surprisingly relaxed about the outcome. Robots will steal our jobs, they nod happily, and we will all lead lives of leisure, our Universal Basic Income (UBI) funded by the machines’ remarkable (and ever-improving) efficiency in an economy of radical abundance. Instead of spending our days doing jobs which many of us find repetitive and soul-destroying, we can get on with the serious business of playing: learning, exploring, creating, socialising and having fun.

This is an outcome devoutly to be wished for, and I sincerely hope we achieve it because the alternatives are bleak. But I doubt that it will happen by default: getting from here to there will probably require foresight, continuous monitoring and evaluation, planning and talented leadership.

Three dangers

Here are three of the ways that things could go wrong – one for each of the next three decades. To be clear, they are not forecasts, and the timings are just wild guesses. Being an optimistic sort of chap I’m also providing some pointers (“happy scenarios”) to how we can avoid the negative outcomes.

For the 2020s we have panic leading to economic turmoil, which is avoided in the happy version by political leaders demonstrating that they are addressing seriously the potential for an economic singularity, and that they are developing a realistic plan to effect a smooth transition. For the 2030s we have failure to implement UBI effectively leading to widespread deprivation, riots, and a level of social breakdown. In the happy version this is avoided by preparing the ground for the smooth introduction of UBI on a global basis. For the 2040s we have the world descending into the scenario of the Gods and the Useless, a rather brutal phrase I have borrowed from Yuval Harari. This time the happy version involves the super-wealthy agreeing to transfer their assets – especially the AI – into communal ownership mediated by the blockchain.

All lollipops

Next week: The 2020s and 2030s…

2 thoughts on “Bumps on the road to the Economic Singularity

  1. Bumps on the road to the Economic Singularity – sainsfilteknologi

  2. I think you’re right. I think it will be different this time, but it’s going to take a while. I’m not sure about your timeframe, but the kind of procession you’re talking about is what we’ll see.

    The reason I think it’ll turn out better rather than worse is that the whole world economy runs on the ability of people to buy things. Until or indeed unless money actually ceases to be a thing, people will need to be able to buy things for other people to be either able to make things (to be bought) or sell those things.

    It could become a world where humans fulfill some kind of service economy in person — coffee shops, tailors, maids – this list is not exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination — and where handmade goods by an increasingly capable artisan population attract what little actual free cash is around once we’ve all bought our televisions, beds, houses, nutrient bars and pay per view subscriptions.

    It would mean a massive change in not only our civilisation, but in our internal lives too. Right now, we work to live. This economic singularity — really a manufacturing singularity as much as anything else — could instead mean that we will live to work, meaning we will live to create one of a kind items or provide that kind of service that humans not only do best but that we want humans to provide.

    Too many economists ignore the consumption side of things. Without people able to buy, you cannot sell, no matter how cheap it is.

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