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 7 – The Star Trek Economy

In 2050 Lauren turned sixty. She reflected that in a previous era she would now be thinking about retiring, but this wasn’t necessary for Lauren since she hadn’t had a job for decades. Neither had most of her family and friends.

Millennials
She was a Millennial, and hers was the lucky generation. It hadn’t seemed like that at the outset. When Lauren was in her teens in what was called the noughties – the early years of the century – it seemed as though the Baby Boomers, the post-WW2 generation, had eaten all the pies. In many countries their education was subsidised, while Lauren’s generation had to pay college fees. The Boomers could afford to buy properties before they reached middle age, even in property hot-spots like London, New York and San Francisco. And they invented sex, for heaven’s sake. (Apparently it hadn’t existed before the Swinging Sixties.)

But later on, when humanity muddled through the Economic Singularity without too much turmoil, it turned out that the Boomers’ luck was eclipsed by that of the Millennials.

During the 2020s, industry after industry succumbed to automation by intelligent machines, and unemployment began to soar. Professional drivers were the first to go, but they were quickly followed by the staff in car insurance companies, call centres, fast food outlets and most other types of retail. At the same time, junior positions in the middle-class professions started thinning out so that there were no trainee jobs for accountants, lawyers, architects and journalists. By 2030 even economists were admitting that lasting widespread unemployability was a thing, although they did so using such obscure language that no-one could tell if they were apologising for having denied it for so long. (They weren’t.)

Economist Oh F..k
People survived thanks to increasingly generous welfare payments, which were raised by desperate governments just fast enough to ward off serious social unrest. The political left screamed for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), but pragmatic politicians pointed out there was no point diverting much-needed funds towards the people still working, and also that no-one wanted to live forever on a “basic”, i.e. subsistence level of income.

Instead of UBI, a system of payments called HELP was introduced, which stood for Human Elective Leisure Payment. The name was chosen to avoid the stigmatism that living on welfare had often aroused in the past, and also to acknowledge the fact that many of the people who received it were giving up their jobs voluntarily so that other people, less able than themselves to find meaning outside structured employment, could carry on as employees.

HELP
HELP staved off immediate disaster, but those pragmatic politicians were increasingly concerned about its affordability. The demands on the public purse were growing fast, while the tax base of most economies was shrinking. Smart machines were making products and services more efficiently, but the gains didn’t show up in increased profits to the companies that owned the machines. Instead they generated lower and lower prices for consumers. Fortunately, as it turned out, this enabled governments to reduce the level of HELP without squeezing the living standards of their citizens.

The race downhill between the incomes of governments and the costs they needed to cover for their citizens was nerve-wracking for a few years, but by the time Lauren hit middle age it was clear the outcome would be good. Most kinds of products had now been converted into services, so cars, houses, and even clothes were almost universally rented rather than bought: Lauren didn’t know anyone who owned a car. The cost of renting a car for a journey was so close to zero that the renting companies – auto manufacturers or AI giants and often both – generally didn’t bother to collect the payment. Money was still in use, but was becoming less and less necessary.

As a result, the prices of most asset classes had crashed. Huge fortunes had been wiped out as property prices collapsed, especially in the hot-spot cities, but few people minded all that much as they could get whatever they needed so easily. Art collections had mostly been donated to public galleries – which were of course free to visit, and most of the people who had previously had the good fortune to occupy the very nicest homes had surrendered their exclusive occupation.

Self-driving RV
The populations of most countries were highly mobile, gradually migrating from one interesting place to another as the fancy took them. This weekend Lauren was “renting” a self-driving mobile home to drive her – at night, while she was asleep – to Portugal, where she would spend a couple of weeks on a walking trip with some college friends. With so much of what was important to people now being digital rather than material, no-one was bothered by the impracticality of having piles of material belongings tying them to one location. And with the universal free internet providing so much bandwidth, distance was much less of a barrier to communication and friendship than it used to be.

The means of production, and the server farms which were home to the titanic banks of AI-generating computers, were still in private ownership, as no-one had yet found a way to ensure that state ownership would avoid sliding into inefficiency and corruption. But because it was clear that the owners were not profiteering, this was not seen as a problem. The reason why the owners didn’t exploit their position was partly that they didn’t see any need to, and partly that if they did, somebody else would compete away their margins with equally efficient smart machines. Most people viewed the owners as heroes rather than villains.

There were a few voices warning that the scenario of “the gods and the useless” was still a possibility, because technological innovation was still accelerating, and the owners might have privileged access to tech that would render them qualitatively different to everyone else, and they would effectively become a different species.

But like most people, Lauren thought this was unlikely to happen before the first artificial general intelligence was created, followed soon after by the first superintelligence – an entity smarter than the smartest human. Lauren was very fond of her nephew Alex, a generation younger than her. It was widely assumed that when the first superintelligence appeared, humanity would somehow merge with it, and that Alex’s generation would be the last generation to reach middle age as “natural” humans. It was therefore fitting that they were called generation Z.

Future Bites 6 – Generous Google

It is 2044. Around the world, machines have taken over many of the jobs that humans used to do. Professional drivers were the first big group to succumb to what is now commonly referred to as cognitive automation. Many of them struggled to cope, eking out unsatisfactory existences in the gig economy. Call centre staff and retail workers were next, and then, in the early 2030s, most of the professions started to see large reductions in employment levels too.

Dole queue
Unemployment levels in different countries now range from 40% to 75%, depending mainly on the level of technological sophistication of their economies. Countries with deep expertise in artificial intelligence tend to have relatively low unemployment, as do countries where wage levels were extremely low, as the incentive to automate is less.

Some countries tried to resist the encroachment of the machines, but the effect on their economies was devastating, as they became woefully un-competitive. All the countries which tried it have experienced a change of government, sometimes violently. Argentina is an interesting exception: its people believe themselves and their nation to be unique, and they are willing to tolerate deep poverty levels as a by-product of their search for a different path. The collapse of the Russian government was especially violent, although fortunately there were no mishaps with its nuclear arsenal. What happened to president Putin is a mystery, although there are persistent rumours of a grisly end.

Putin down
No economists were harmed in the making of this un-forecast, but their profession is now depleted, as they almost unanimously refused to accept that automation could cause lasting unemployment until well past the time that it was obvious to everyone else.

Overall, the situation is satisfactory because of a Great Accommodation that was reached between the AI giants and everyone else. Thanks to their mastery of advanced AI, eight American firms and half a dozen Chinese ones now generate almost 75% of the world’s GDP. President Michelle Obama chaired a series of seminal meetings in the pivotal years at the end of the 2030s in which these firms agreed to pay extremely high taxes in order to keep everyone else alive by means of so-called Citizen’s Income Payments, or CIP. The result is now known as the “generous Google” scenario. Only one tech giant CEO held out in opposition to the agreement, and as a result his firm was nationalised and transferred to a consortium of the others. He now tours the world in a very fast yacht, complaining bitterly to anyone who will listen to him.

Some countries introduced land taxes in an attempt to supplement their incomes, but since the land was not contributing much to GDP, their main effect was to severely depress the value of the land.

President Michalle
For a while it looked as if the world faced a serious problem because the AI giants were all based in China and the US. Fortunately the profound wave of isolationism, nationalism and protectionism that broke across the world in the late 2010s had by now reversed. President Obama was able to secure an agreement that the AI giants would be taxed at the point where they delivered their services rather than where they were domiciled.

The payments received by citizens are modest because the profits of the AI giants are constrained by the normal forces of competition. To the surprise of many the payments are not called universal basic income (UBI) because they are not universal. People who still have jobs do not receive them. The payments are easy to sign up for in most countries, and policing is light.

Almost all unemployed citizens (and many employed ones) spend a good deal of time in virtual reality, which is now highly compelling. Government guidelines recommend that people spend at least four hours a day outside VR, but many people ignore this. There was talk in some countries about adjusting the CIP according to how much time the recipients spent outside VR on the grounds that this would improve health outcomes. But it turns out that many people get significant exercise while in VR, so that proposal has generally been dropped.

crowd in vr
People are generally stuck economically, in the sense that they have no way to improve their financial situation. Drug use is widespread and is de-criminalised almost everywhere. The view is widespread that humanity’s goal should be to advance towards what is known as a Star Trek economy of radical abundance, where goods and services are virtually free. No-one knows how long this will take, and its arrival does not look imminent.

Future Bites 5 – Drones

Julia felt the blast more than she heard it. The deep rumble almost seemed to come from inside her. She had once experienced an earthquake, several years ago, and her first thought was that this was another one. But that had been in Indonesia, where earthquakes were fairly common; an earthquake in East London was unheard of.

Terror attack
Instinctively she flicked her phone into life, and it brought her up to speed. The newsfeeds had nothing yet, but Twitter was already alight with information. The blast had been a massive explosion at an electricity sub-station about fifteen miles from where she stood. Eyewitnesses thought that a lot of people had been killed, and many more injured. Then the videos started spilling into her feed, and they were astonishing, horrific. The videos were surprisingly clear considering the stress the people taking them must be going through, but Julia didn’t stop to consider the amazing performance of smartphone cameras these days. What she was looking at was shocking. The blast area was huge and it was clear the damage was enormous.

She flicked back to her favourite newsfeed, which told her that two organisations had claimed responsibility. One was a jihadist Islamic organisation, but its star had faded years ago, and its routine attempts to claim the “credit” for any piece of mayhem were generally dismissed. The other was a more likely culprit: JUST – the Jobless Union for Socialist Technology. Starting out as a think tank, a decidedly non-violent talking shop for people interested in how society could adjust to technological unemployment, JUST had gradually been taken over by militants as more and more people found themselves on subsistence welfare incomes, completely unable to find a job.

Julia realised that this attack was a watershed event, maybe even on the scale of 9/11. Sirens screamed as every available rescue services vehicle raced to the site. Then she looked up, and she noticed something odd. The air was full of drones, and they were all heading to the site as well. Most of them were Amazon delivery drones, but she had never seen so many in the air before.

Drones swarm
She looked back to her phone, where the explanation awaited her. The government had commandeered, temporarily, the entire fleet of Amazon drones, and every other drone whose owner they could track down. At the time it was just one detail of an extraordinary and terrible time, but in the months to come Julia would recognise it as one of the most important things to happen that day. It was the day when the government put eyes in the sky. Amazon would get control of their drones back the next day, but from now on the feeds from the cameras on board would always be available to something like thirty different government agencies on demand. From now on there would always be an eye in the sky, watching.

Future Bits 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.

populism-3
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

otto-self-driving-truck

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…