The last workforce

In the dystopian sci-fi TV series, Revolution, where an unknown phenomenon causes the permanent shutdown of electricity worldwide (implausible, bordering on stupid, I know), there is a scene which merits mentioning here. The power has just gone out. Our protagonist knows it is a permanent outage and lets his children finish the stored ice cream with the full knowledge that they will never have it again. The absolute finality of that scene gets to you. And the emotive appeal of that scene is precisely the reason behind its inclusion.

And this shock value of this scene is exactly the reason why I brought it up. In case you have not noticed, humongous and likely irreversible changes have been occurring in our lives for the past three decades. These changes have been driven by the internet and smart machines like your phone, tablet or laptop. And these changes have already gobbled up countless professions without raising any serious alarm. The photoshop next door, which developed your pictures in dark rooms, gone. The video store and the music record shop down the lane vanished without a trace. Many bookshops disappeared from the face of the planet. All of them were once considered permanent fixtures of civilisation. When you are determined not to pay attention, come hell or high water, you don’t.

Today’s piece is a continuation of our discussion on the subject of AI. As I have often pointed out, the potential rise of artificial general intelligence, which you see in films, does not concern me much. We have it on good authority that such an eventuality might be far away. However, as I have repeatedly pointed out, the prospect of tech displacement certainly does. And it seems the human race has developed denial-based immunity and is not too keen to pay much heed. This is a recipe for disaster.

Since my piece “Ready to lose your job?” dated April 26, 2018, appeared in this space, I have done everything to keep my readers interested in the question. An interview with ChatGPT, the budding AI-powered language model, last week seems like a culmination point of this effort. Today, I want to demolish the facade of denial around the subject. There are reasons for us to believe that no matter what we do, workwise, the human race will soon be redundant. And there is no rocket science about it. It looks like we, or at best, our children, will be the members of the last active workforce. Dramatic pronouncement, you say? Well, not quite.

I will offer reasons to qualify my assertion a bit later. For now, however, I need to highlight how simplistic the counter-arguments are. For the last five years, I have tried to read as many books, research papers and articles on the subject as I could. The question was simple. If machines took all our jobs, what would humanity do for a living? Remember, in such a scenario, the employers would inevitably be humans. Hence a small class of super-rich. But what would the rest of us, the working people, do? In response, the researchers offer their belief that new jobs would emerge. To advance this argument, they cite the example of past transitions when humanity seemed just as clueless or fearful. After the discovery of fire, the invention of agriculture, industrialisation and finally, the cyber age, there were dire predictions about humanity losing its utility, but that did not happen. Old jobs did vanish, but new, better-paying jobs took their place, and as a result, humanity had more leisure time and longevity. All true. But their operationalising of this argument in our current study does not hold water. When they say new jobs will most certainly emerge, the question then arises what kind of jobs. This is where their arguments fail the test of specificity. Optimism is not a policy. The previous transitions might have amended some aspects of human life but never impeached its unique selling proposition, the human mind. Fire, domestication of animals and plants, mastery over industrial machinery and finally, computer connectivity all seemed to complement human existence, not seek to supplant it. That cannot be said about our current friends.

As if in a daze, we are next told that AI’s use in the economy will create a boom. Since the business owners will make more money, they, in collaboration with governments, will be able to offer regular remunerations to all citizens. Capital idea. Except have you met any entrepreneurs or politicians? Also, explain how this entire idea of an economic boom will work when the workforce has been made redundant and has no purchasing power. You amaze me.

Now a word on the inevitability of this displacement. Let me cite Max Tagmark’s Life 3.0 again to remind you where we are on the evolutionary scale. Life 1.0 is amoeba and such life forms that can neither reprogramme their hardware nor software. Life 2.0 are us. We can change our software but not our hardware. Our eyes can’t zoom in or out, and we cannot add more eyes to our bodies — the same for our limbs or other parts. And since our brains are encased in our skulls, we can’t augment them with more living tissue. Life 3.0 is AI. Its evolutionary cycles are incredibly shorter than ours. It doesn’t need a climate to breathe, and when installed in bodies or exoskeletons, it is totally customisable.

But that is not all. Thanks to mobile telecommunication, it has almost infinite reach, owing to cloud unlimited retentive and processing power, courtesy internet of things, the ability to turn every smart machine a part of its collective and an ability to reproduce physically due to 3D printing. With all of this going for AI, do you really think it will not be able to replace you in any job? You are told it will be cost-prohibitive. Not really. Technology cost does not matter in an economy of scale.

Since my last piece, Facebook has launched its AI-powered language model called LLaMA. Google’s Apprentice Bard is taking long evolutionary strides. Microsoft has incorporated ChatGPT into its search engine Bing and now testing it in robots. At a time when all humanity should be coming together to mull over its future, we are busy fighting wars and spreading hate. Hate is one element that the new technology should not be introduced to, but you know who cares before the problem becomes too big. So, in other words, we are about to be redundant. And judging by the priorities of our political overlords doomed.


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