Future Bites

A series of “un-forecasts” – little glimpses of what may lie ahead in the century of two singularities.  They are not predictions.  Predictions are almost always wrong, so we can be pretty confident that the future will not turn out exactly like this.  They are intended to make the abstract notion of technological unemployment more real, and to contribute to scenario planning.  Failing to plan is planning to fail: if you have a plan, you may not achieve it, but if you have no plan, you most certainly won’t.  In a complex environment, scenario development is a valuable part of the planning process. Thinking through how we would respond to a sufficient number of carefully thought-out scenarios could well help us to react more quickly when we see the beginnings of what we believe to be a dangerous trend.

Future Bites 4 – Simultaneous Singularities

It is 2032. Most professional drivers have lost their jobs, and although many have found new ones, they rarely pay anything like as much as the drivers used to earn. A host of other job categories are becoming the preserve of machines, including call centre operatives and radiographers. A few people still cling onto the notion that new types of jobs will be created to replace the old ones taken by machines, but most accept that the game is up. The phrase “Economic Singularity” is in widespread use.

Pollsters report what everyone already knows: there is a rising tide of anger. Crime is soaring, and street protests have turned violent. Populist politicians are blaming all sorts of minorities, and while nobody really believes them, many suspend their disbelief in order to give themselves some kind of hope.

Meanwhile, close observers of the field of AGI research have noticed a rapid acceleration of progress, and are therefore not surprised when Google’s Deep Mind announces that it has essentially cracked the problem. Working closely with the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, the Future of Life Institute in Boston and others, Deep Mind also claims that it has worked out how to ensure the planet’s first human-level artificial intelligence has an extremely favourable attitude towards the species which created it.

supercomputerThe world holds its breath as, in a televised event which attracts record-breaking audiences around the world, one of the founders of Deep Mind ceremonially throws the switch which will bring the first true AGI online. After a few moments conferring with colleagues, he announces that the process was successful, and that a large array of backup servers will now be connected to the network of machines which is hosting the first AGI. Nervously, journalists whisper about the arrival of the technological singularity.

Two days later, in another televised event with even more record-breaking audience figures, Deep Mind introduces the new entity to an expectant world. Somehow the entity manages to avoid sounding immodest as it describes itself as the world’s first superintelligence, with an IQ of 1,000 and rising. It announces that it has a cunning plan. It will dedicate most of its cognitive resources (which are being expanded rapidly) to solving the problem of offering all humans the opportunity to upload their minds into highly secure computer substrates. It expects this can be achieved within a couple of years. Anyone who chooses not to pursue this option will be provided with the necessities of life without charge until they die.

brain-computer

It describes this plan as the merging of the two singularities.

Future Bites 3 – Accelerated abundance

angry-trucker

Most professional drivers have lost their jobs, and although many have found new ones, they rarely pay anything like as much as the drivers used to earn. A host of other job categories are becoming the preserve of machines, including call centre operatives and radiographers. A few people still cling onto the notion that new types of jobs will be created to replace the old ones taken by machines, but most accept that the game is up. The phrase “Economic Singularity” is in widespread use.

Pollsters report what everyone already knows: there is a rising tide of anger. Crime is soaring, and street protests have turned violent. Populist politicians are blaming all sorts of minorities, and while nobody really believes them, many suspend their disbelief in order to give themselves some kind of hope.

The government knows that it must act quickly. In desperation it enacts legislation which was ridiculed just a few months previously.

it offers a separate, higher level of unemployment benefit to people who willingly give up their jobs to others. In addition to elevated unemployment payments, these so-called “job sacrificers” are allowed to live in their existing homes, with bills and maintenance paid for by the government.

video-night-and-day

In addition, they receive free access to a new entertainment service which allows them to stream a wide range of music, films, and video games. This new service is funded by a consortium of American and Chinese tech giants who now occupy all of the top ten positions in global rankings of companies by enterprise value thanks to their enormously popular AI-powered services. (Netflix was acquired by one of them for a gigantic premium to stop it protesting.)

Governments around the world are in negotiations with the tech giants and other business leaders about making some of the basic needs of life free to jobless people, including food, clothing, housing and transport. They argue that innovation will continue to improve the quality and performance of each product and service thanks to the remaining demand for luxury versions from those who are still employed, many of whom are earning enormous sums of money.

It has not escaped the attention of policy makers that a gulf is opening up between the jobless and those in work. Nobody has yet suggested a generally acceptable solution.

Future Bites 2 – Populism paves the way for something worse

populism

In the five years of President Trump, corporate taxes were slashed and federal spending on infrastructure projects was boosted. Companies and individuals were exhorted (and sometimes extorted) to buy American, and imports were cut by tariff and non-tariff barriers. The impact was profound. Initially, US GDP rose sharply as its firms repatriated hundreds of $billions of profits from their foreign subsidiaries, and jobs were created to carry out the infrastructure projects.

But the government spending was inefficient, and there were persistent reports of large-scale corruption, some of it involving members of the Trump family. Cross-border trade and investment slumped as countries retaliated against US protectionism.

More importantly, job growth was constrained and then outweighed by the beginnings of cognitive automation, and the unmistakeable signs of widespread and lasting technological unemployment.

driver-walks-past-lorries

By the end of Trump’s term, inflation was rising fast, along with the national debt. Unemployment was at 15%, and regional military conflicts were becoming both chronic and acute as America had withdrawn from its role as the global peace-keeper. Americans were increasingly scared, and they looked for a scapegoat. President Trump declined the Republican Party’s fretful offer to be its candidate again in 2020, and railed against (and frequently sued) anyone who criticised his track record, blaming Muslims, Mexicans, and the covert activities of “internal traitors”, who he declined to identify.

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Polls showed the Republicans heading for electoral disaster, and a tight contest between a reluctant Michelle Obama and a rising new party which called for law and order, a clamp-down on dissent and protest, internment for certain racial minorities, and a major increase in military expenditure. Hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed people participated in mass rallies, wearing armbands and giving identical salutes to the party’s garish flag.

Future Bites 1 – UBI for drivers

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It’s 2025 and self-driving trucks, buses, taxis and delivery vans are the norm.  Almost all of America’s five million professional drivers are out of work.  They used to earn white-collar salaries for their blue-collar work, which means it is now virtually impossible for them to earn similar incomes.  A small minority have re-trained and become coders, or virtual reality architects or something, but most are on welfare, and / or earning much smaller incomes in the gig economy.  And they are angry.

The federal government, fearful of social unrest (or at least disastrous electoral results), steps in to replace 80% of their income, guaranteed for two years.  This calms the drivers’ anger, but other people on welfare are protesting, demanding to know why their benefit levels are so much lower.

Meanwhile, many thousands of the country’s 1.3m lawyers are being laid off.  And their salaries were much higher.  The government knows it cannot fund 80% replacement of those incomes, but the lawyers are a vociferous bunch.

And there are doctors, journalists, warehouse managers, grocery store workers…