Why are politicians not talking about the biggest threat & opportunity facing the human race?

It has been a crazy year in politics both here in the US and around the world. I can’t remember a time when the news was so dominated by political discourse, yet almost none of it has been about what I believe is the biggest opportunity as well as the biggest threat to our society.

It is a tidal wave that is growing into something more impactful than anything else in our history. That wave is the evolution of intelligent machines. I’m using this term as a broad grouping of many different (often overlapping) technologies including: connectivity, robotics, drones, virtual/augmented/mixed reality, voice/optical recognition, autonomous vehicles and most importantly artificial intelligence.

Predicting the future is hard. As a venture capitalist I’ve seen how often even the smartest people are wrong about the future. But when it comes to intelligent machines, there is a clear progression that at the very least it needs to be a major area of discussion among our leaders and society as a whole.

At the 2012 Singularity Summit, a poll was taken among AI experts as to when General Artificial Intelligence would surpass humans. That is the time when AI is able to perform any intellectual task better than a human. While there was a wide range of predictions, the median value was 2040. That’s only 23 years away! That feels short but other recent accomplishments have come sooner than experts expected like Google’s AlphaGo defeating the worlds best Go player or AI beating top surgeons in predicting lung cancer.

Many top Go players characterized AlphaGo’s unorthodox plays as seemingly-questionable moves that initially befuddled onlookers, but made sense in hindsight

While the timing of this shift is unknown, I find it very difficult to believe that it won’t ever happen. The human brain is an extremely complex set of roughly 100 trillion synapses. Researchers believe each brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and internet connections on Earth. However if you believe Moore’s Law, you know that won’t always be true.

One thing I find really interesting to consider is what will happen when general artificial intelligence surpasses humans. At that point it seems logical that the AI will be able to create smarter systems better than humans can. But unlike with human driven AI, the AI built AI probably wouldn’t evolve in human time scale, rather it could enter a runaway loop of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation being created more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence. This concept is known as Technological Singularity.

When Hollywood depicts machines with superintelligence, the AI often relates to us like a very intelligent person would relate to a normal person. I think a better way to think about a post technological singularity world is that the AI would relate to us like how a very intelligent person would relate to a worm. Its intelligence would be beyond ours in ways we couldn’t possibly conceive. This may sounds like science fiction but a lot of smart people like Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have begun speaking out on this subject.

Also while there are certainly dangers to having such intelligent machines, there are also amazing possibilities. There is reason to believe a superintelligent system could create revolutionary solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems such as disease, famine, environmental issues and even mortality.

Now that I’ve likely lost most people let’s bring it back to areas where we have more visibility. As I said, the future is very hard to predict so I fully admit there will likely be many aspects of machine intelligence that we haven’t considered yet. That said there are certain trends that I feel quite solid about:

  1. Intelligent machines (as I’ve defined it) are progressing at an unprecedented rate
  2. Humans are evolving at a much slower rate than intelligent machines
  3. The percentage of human tasks/jobs that is being replaced by intelligent machine is increasing at a substantial rate

Based on this reasoning I think it’s likely that if we continue on this path we will get to a point where intelligent machines do all jobs/tasks better than humans. Therefore our progression between now and then will be a path where intelligent machines are able to do a higher and higher percentage of all jobs/tasks.

Additionally I’d argue that the impact of intelligent machines on the world’s economy, society and politics is already far greater than most people realize. We are already on the path, it’s just that most people don’t realize it yet. A recent Mckinsey study found that as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies. Whether its factory workers, toll booth operators, travel agents or soon to be all people who drive for a living, jobs as we know them are going away. And yes, some new jobs will be created by these technologies but not nearly as many as are replaced.

I view technology as a lever. As it has progressed over human history it has allowed less humans to do more. It has progressed very slowly and its effects have been subtle compared to what we’re seeing now. As intelligent machines continue to evolve the percentage of the world’s population needed to produce all the “stuff” the world needs or wants will become very small. I believe we are already starting to see the results of this as income disparity skyrockets and real income for the majority of people in the developed world stagnates. And if our leaders don’t take action, it's going to get much much worse.

So why are almost no politicians talking about this? Here are three possibilities:

  1. They don’t understand it or at least don’t understand the magnitude of the situation.
  2. They do understand it but they think it's too abstract or complicated to talk about with the voting public. It’s much easier to blame China for all the manufacturing job losses than a faceless set of technologies.
  3. They do understand it but the most logical path forward in a world where intelligent machines do most of the work for us isn’t in line with their ideological or political beliefs.

Given my low opinion of most politicians, I’m going to guess the mass majority fall under #1.

Of course I don’t know exactly how things will unfold in the future but I feel pretty confident intelligent machines are going to have an unprecedented effect on our world. Depending on how we approach this, the range of outcomes is extremely vast. We must be thoughtful about how we navigate this building tidal wave and we need leaders who understand and appreciate what’s going on.

What do you think about this? Do you agree with the hypothesis of Technological Singularity? How should governments prepare for a world with very few jobs?