A not-so-comforting future

When people in Europe enjoyed the end of the Belle Epoque, they had no idea of the massive change to people’s lives that would accompany World War I and its aftermath. Similarly, in the next two decades, the degree of change and the speed with which it will occur will usher in radical change.

There are two changes that will rock our world. First, improving machinery (including artificial intelligence) will vastly reduce the number of workers needed and the amount of work required of each worker. Second, genetic engineering will make human beings smarter, faster, and better in ways previously unimagined.

In 2013, Oxford University professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that nearly half of U.S. jobs could be replaced with automated machines in the next two decades. This is a mind-boggling 80 million unemployed people. The jobs most at risk of automation are those that are routine, that is, performed according to explicit rules. This includes manual jobs (for example, truck driver) and cognitive jobs (for example, cashier). Harvard economist Lawrence Katz estimates that in transportation alone, 5 million people (3 percent of the work force) could be unemployed as the result of driverless vehicles. Consider, for example, delivery vehicles, long-haul trucks, and taxis.

California Polytechnic State University philosopher Ryan Jenkins points out that even jobs requiring strategy, cunning, and context-sensitivity not only will be replaced, but already are being displaced. Consider that many stock trades are already handled by machines.

Jenkins points out that massive technological unemployment will have large effects. First, he predicts it will lead to extended unemployment. Tens of millions of people unemployed in a short period of time will likely cause many to suffer the social ills that plague the long-term unemployed underclass. Consider, for example, alcoholism, depression, opioid abuse, out-of-wedlock births, suicide, and violence. Second, he argues, because many people find life meaningful in part based on the work they do, there will be a dizzying change in values as tens of millions of people no longer contribute to society through their work. They will have to decide how to occupy their days. Third, he notes, with so many people unable to contribute in the marketplace, fellow taxpayers will have to expand the amount of welfare in terms of cash, food, housing, medical care, etc. for those whose jobs have been automated away.

Second, and perhaps later than the automation of jobs, genetic engineering will make people far better in a few generations. Drew University philosopher Thomas Magnell argues that genetic engineering will make people smarter, faster, stronger, and morally better. He further argues that the rate of improvement will accelerate. This is part because machines will improve people through selection of better gametes, gene repair and replacement, better mate selection, and so on. This is also in part because people will improve machines as each generation of smarter people will build better machines. Large numbers of brilliant people working with ever more powerful computers will discover and design dazzling things. Nor is this Jules Verne speculation. As it is (at least in part due to changes in nutrition), people’s IQs are increasing and genetic counselors are increasingly able to warn people of maladies some are likely to face.

By analogy, 19th century intellectuals, let alone most people, could only foresee the changes in chemistry, philosophy, and physics in crude and imprecise terms. They likely didn’t foresee the computer revolution at all. There is a good chance that the changes coming our way will be just as radical as those experienced by someone living from 1865 to 1965.

A world with vast unemployment, levels of economic efficiency and luxury barely imaginable, and new and improved people will change the world in the same way that other revolutions did so. Consider, for example, the agricultural, industrial, and computer revolutions and changes that accompanied the Civil War and World War I.

An interesting question is whether our current values should continue to guide us. Most people find value and meaning in their families, jobs, community, and religion. Leaving aside people’s commitment to families, it is unclear which of the other things will continue to provide value and meaning. As many people become unproductive because they cannot efficiency produce things, work will cease to be so important to people’s lives. Many people will be increasingly be like Florida retirees only with an earlier start.

Religion is already declining in importance in Europe and the U.S. As the metaphysical claims on which religion rests (consider, for example, free will, God, and souls) and the specific content of particular religions (consider, for example, atonement, chosen people, and Muhammad and Joseph Smith as prophets) become increasingly less plausible, today’s religions will likely fade in a way similar how the Greek and Roman religions faded away.

The effect on community is harder to predict. Contrary to what many intellectuals predicted, societies continue to emphasize tribalism. This can be seen in wars and increasing balkanization of countries. This can also be seen in the international revulsion at the U.S. and European elites’ attempt to flood their countries with poor-and-uneducated third world immigrants, many of whom have different values and loyalties. See, for example, Brexit, Donald Trump, and the rise of nationalist European parties. It is unclear if the accelerating change will strengthen or weaken tribalism.

Nor will people be able to hold off these changes. Societies that attempt to adopt Luddite-like rules to hold off such changes will become increasingly worse off relative to their competitors. Market-like pressures and the desire of people to see their children flourish will limit communities’ abilities to hold off these revolutions. Similar to the Amish or Hasidim, contemporary Luddites will likely exist but mainly on the fringe.

It is both exciting and disturbing to sit on the edge of a revolution. Exciting because we’re about to see a new world. Disturbing because what we want and value will likely change.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com