Satisfying stories feature a hero or heroine facing jeopardy and triumphing over adversity. This explains why most science fiction is dystopian: that’s where the jeopardy is.
This gives us a problem. Science fiction provides the metaphors we use to think about and discuss the future, and unfortunately, for every Star Trek there are multiple Star Wars and Terminators. Fear of the future stops many of us from thinking about it seriously. Maybe we should offset the likes of Black Mirror with some White Mirror.
So here is a description of the world in which AI has turned everything upside down – for the good. It’s a scenario, not a forecast, but maybe if we’re smart we can get there.
2025: panic averted
Vehicles without human drivers are becoming a common sight in cities and towns all over the world. Professional drivers are starting to be laid off, and it is clear to everyone that most of them will be redundant within a few years. At the same time, employment in call centres and the retail industry is hollowing out as increasingly sophisticated digital assistants are able to handle customer enquiries, and the move to online shopping accelerates. The picking function in warehouses has been cost-effectively automated, and we are starting to see factories which normally have no lights on because no humans are working there.
Farmers are experimenting with robots for both crops and animal husbandry. Small wheeled devices patrol rows of vegetables, interrogating plants which don’t appear to be healthy specimens, and eliminating individual weeds with herbicides, or targeted jets of very hot water. Cattle are entirely content to be milked by robots, so fewer members of the declining population of farm workers still have to get up before daybreak every day.
Construction firms are experimenting with pre-fabricated units, but most construction projects remain subject to great variability of on-site conditions. Robots which can handle this unpredictability are still too expensive to replace human construction workers.
The tedious jobs which traditionally provided training wheels for accountants and lawyers (“ticking and bashing” for auditors and “disclosure” or “discovery” for lawyers) are increasingly being handled by machines. Skeptics about technological unemployment point out that the amount of work carried out by professional firms has actually increased, as whole categories of previously uneconomic jobs have become possible, and that professionals are kept busy because the machines still need training on each new data set. But fewer trainees are being hired, and thoughtful practitioners are asking where tomorrow’s qualified lawyers and accountants will come from.
Many companies have laid off some workers, but most have reduced their headcount primarily by natural wastage: not replacing people who retired or moved on. As a result, there have been fewer headlines about massive redundancies than some people feared, but at the same time it has become much harder for people to find new jobs. The unemployment rate among new graduates is at historically high levels.
But instead of panicking, the populations of most countries are reassured by the consensus which evolved when governments and philanthropists started to sponsor serious work on the issue of technological unemployment in the late 2010s. Slowly at first, and then rapidly, it became conventional wisdom that the Star Trek economy is achievable.
Meanwhile, governments are investing heavily in retraining to help workers cope with rapid job churn. AI personal tutor systems show promise, but are still rudimentary.
Large numbers of people are now unemployed, and welfare systems are swollen. Universal Basic Income was not the solution: there was no point paying generous welfare to the many people who remained in lucrative employment, and a basic income was insufficient for the rest. The new welfare has many incarnations, and interesting new experiments are springing up all the time. Concepts like PCI (Progressive Comfortable Income), and HELP (Human Elective Leisure Programme) are being discussed not only in the think tanks, but in kitchens, bars and restaurants all over the world.
Professional drivers are now extremely rare. Their disappearance was resisted for a while – road rage against the machines was ferocious in places. Autonomous vehicles were attacked, their cameras and LIDARs sprayed with paint. Some high-profile arrests and jail sentences quickly put a stop to the practice. Most jurisdictions now have roads which are off-limits to human drivers. Insurance premiums have plummeted, and fears about self-driving cars being routinely hacked have not been realised.
Deliveries of fast food and small parcels in major cities are now mostly carried out by autonomous drones, operating within their own designated level of airspace. Sometimes the last mile of a delivery is carried out by autonomous wheeled containers. For a while, teenagers delighted in “bot-tipping”, but with all the cameras and other sensory equipment protecting the bots, the risk of detection and punishment became too high.
In manufacturing, 3D printing has advanced less quickly than many expected, as it remained more expensive than mass production. But it is common in niche applications, like urgently required parts, components with complex designs, and situations where products are bespoke, as in parts of the construction industry. They have an impact on businesses and the economy far greater than their modest output level would suggest.
On construction sites, human supervision is still the norm for laying foundations, but pre-fabricated (often 3D-printed) walls, roofs and whole building units are becoming common. Robot labour and humans in exoskeletons are increasingly used to assemble them. Drones populate the air above construction sites, tracking progress and enabling real-time adjustments to plans and activities.
The Internet of Things has materialised, with everyone receiving messages continuously from thousands of sensors and devices implanted in vehicles, roads, trees, buildings, etc. Fortunately, the messages are intermediated by personal digital assistants, which have acquired the generic name of “Friends”, but whose owners often endow them with pet names. New types of relationship and etiquette are evolving to govern how people interact with their own and other peoples’ Friends, and what personalities the Friends should present.
There is lively debate about the best ways to communicate with Friends and other computers. One promising technology is tattoos worn on the face and around the throat which have micro-sensors to detect and interpret the tiny movements when people sub-vocalise, i.e., speak without actually making a noise. The tattoos are usually invisible, but some people have visible ones which give them a cyborg appearance. Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) have made less progress than their early enthusiasts expected.
A growing amount of entertainment and personal interaction is mediated through virtual reality. Good immersive VR equipment is now found in most homes, and it is increasingly rare to see an adolescent in public outside school hours. All major movies made by Netflix, Hollywood and Bollywood are now produced in VR, along with all major video games. To general surprise, levels of literacy – and indeed book sales – have not fallen. Many people now have more time and energy for reading. In a number of genre categories, especially romance and crime, the most popular books are written by AIs.
Major sporting competitions have three strands: robots, augmented humans, and un-augmented humans. Audiences for the latter category are dwindling.
Dating sites have become surprisingly effective. They analyse videos of their users, and allocate them to “types” in order to match them better. They also require their members to provide clothing samples from which they extract data about their smells and their pheromones. The discovery that relationship outcomes can be predicted with surprising accuracy with these kinds of data has slashed divorce rates.
Opposition to the smartphone medical revolution has subsided in most countries, and most people obtain diagnoses and routine health check-ups from their “Friends” several times a week. Automated nurses are becoming increasingly popular, especially in elder care.
Several powerful genetic manipulation technologies are now proved beyond reasonable doubt to be effective, but backed by public unease, regulators continue to hold up their deployment. Cognitive enhancement pharmaceuticals are available in some countries under highly regulated circumstances, but are proving less effective than expected. There are persistent rumours that they are deliberately being engineered that way.
Ageing is increasingly seen as an enemy which can be defeated.
Education is finally undergoing its digital revolution. Customised learning plans based on continuous data analysis and personal AI tutors are becoming the norm. Teachers are becoming coaches and mentors rather than instructors.
2045: The Star Trek Economy
Artificial intelligence has made companies so efficient that the cost of most non-luxury goods and services is close to zero. Few people pay more than a token amount for entertainment or information services, which means that education and world-class healthcare are also much improved in quality and universally available. The cost of energy is dramatically reduced also, as solar power can now be harvested, stored and transmitted almost for free. Transportation involves almost no human labour, so with energy costs low, people can travel pretty much wherever they want, whenever they want. The impressive environments available in virtual reality do a great deal to offset the huge demand for travel that this might otherwise have created.
Food production is almost entirely automated, and the use of land for agriculture is astonishingly efficient. Vertical farms play an important role in high-density areas, and wastage is hugely reduced. The quality of the housing stock, appliances and furniture is being continuously upgraded. A good standard of accommodation is guaranteed to all citizens in most developed countries, although of course there are always complaints about the time it takes to arrive. Personalised or more luxurious versions are available at very reasonable prices to those still earning extra income. Almost no-one in developed countries now lives in cramped, damp, squalid or noisy conditions. Elsewhere in the world, conditions are catching up fast.
Other physical goods like clothes, jewellery and other personal accessories, equipment for hobbies and sports, and a bewildering array of electronic equipment are all available at astonishingly low cost. The Star Trek economy is almost mature. But access to goods and some services is still rationed by price. Nobody – in the developed world at least – wants for the necessities of civilised life, but nobody who is not employed can afford absolutely everything they might wish for. It is generally accepted that this is actually a good thing, as it means the market remains the mechanism for determining what goods are produced, and when.
Unemployment has passed 75% in most developed countries. Among those still working, nobody hates their job: people only do work that they enjoy. Everyone else receives an income from the state, and there is no stigma attached to being unemployed, or partially employed. In most countries the citizens’ is funded by taxes levied on the minority of wealthy people who own most of the productive capital in the economy, and in particular on those who own the AI infrastructure. The income is sufficient to afford a very high standard of living, with access to almost all digital goods being free, and most physical goods being extremely inexpensive.
In many countries, some of the wealthy people have agreed to transfer the means of production and exchange into communally owned, decentralised networks using blockchain technology. Those who do this enjoy the sort of celebrity and popularity previously reserved for film and sports stars.
Some countries mandated these transfers early on by effectively nationalising the assets within their legislative reach, but found that their economies were stagnating, as many of their most innovative and energetic people emigrated. Worldwide, the idea is gaining ground that private ownership of key productive assets is distasteful. Most people do not see it as morally wrong, and don’t want it to be made illegal, but it is often likened to smoking in the presence of non-smokers. This applies particularly to the ownership of facilities which manufacture basic human needs, like food and clothing, and to the ownership of organisations which develop and deploy the most essential technology – the technology which adds most of the value in every industry sector: artificial intelligence.
The gap in income and wealth between rich and poor countries has closed dramatically. This did not happen because of a transfer of assets from the West to the rest, but thanks instead to the adoption of effective economic policies, the eradication of corruption, and the benign impact of technology in the poorer countries.
Another concern which has been allayed is that life without work would deprive the majority of people of a sense of meaning in their lives. Just as amateur artists were always happy to paint despite knowing that they could never equal the output of a Vermeer, so people now are happy to play sport, write books, give lectures and design buildings even though they know that an AI could do any of those things better than them.
Not everyone is at ease in this brave new world, however. Around 10% of the population in most countries suffers from a profound sense of frustration and loss, and either succumbs to drugs or indulges almost permanently in escapist VR entertainment. A wide range of experiments is under way around the world, finding ways to help these people join their friends and families in less destructive or limiting lifestyles. Huge numbers of people outside that 10% have occasional recourse to therapy services when they feel their lives becoming slightly aimless.
Governments and voters in a few countries resisted the economic singularity, seeing it as a de-humanising surrender to machine rule. Although they found economically viable alternatives at first, their citizens’ standard of living quickly fell far behind. Most of these governments have now collapsed like the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, and there are persistent rumours that President-for-life Putin met a very grisly end in 2036. The other hold-outs look set to follow – hopefully without violence.
Significant funds are now allocated to radical age extension research, and there is talk of “longevity escape velocity” being within reach – the point when each year, science adds a year to your life expectancy. Most forms of disability are now offset by implants and exoskeletons, and cognitive enhancements through pharmaceuticals and brain-computer interface techniques are showing considerable promise.
The education sector has ballooned, and is vacational rather than vocational. Most education is provided by AIs.
Safeguards have now been found to enable direct democracy to be implemented in many areas. Professional politicians are now rare.
In London, DeepMind announces that it expects to unveil the first artificial general intelligence. With bated breath, the world awaits the arrival of Earth’s first superintelligence.