Prosperity in the Age of Intelligent Machines

Smarter isn’t wiser. Here’s how to do stuff that matters.

Here’s a tiny question: is human ingenuity going to save — or wreck — the world? Ladies and gentlemen: in this corner, the utopians. They believe that spiritual machines will transcend the corporeal body and lead to a golden age of immortal god-like angel-beings, of which you just might be one. In this corner, the dystopians. They believe that machines will create a rusted, grimy, ashen world of street urchins, Artful Dodgers, miserable refugees…and a lucky few Marie Antoinettes and Louis the Zuckteenths.

So. Who’s right — the utopians, or the dystopians? This will be the last in a series of essays I’ve recently written about redefining human ingenuity. I suggest that we redefine the idea of high versus low tech: high tech is that which improves quality of life, and low tech that causes it to stagnate or decline.

Some of you have read these essays to be blanket condemnations of gadgets, apps, and bots. Let me be crystal clear. They aren’t. I don’t mean that all apps, gadgets, and bots are automatically bad. Let me try and explain in a little more detail what I mean, to draw out the distinction I wish to make between low and high, and why it matters.

Here’s an example of a high tech use of bots: robot surgeons. The hope is that they can perform simple surgeries more accurately and efficiently than humans. The cost, of course, is that many surgeons will have less simple surgeries to perform. But we needn’t cry for them. They can devote themselves instead to more specialized, complex surgery, innovate new techniques, and thus push the art of surgery even further. Robots surgeons indisupitably improve the general quality of life. Thus, they are high tech. Here’s a high tech use of gadgets and apps. Fitness trackers and devices. They make it possible — maybe even probable — that the average person not just takes an interest in, but has an incentive to, stay a little fitter, and so enjoys a higher quality of life. You can extend that example to any domain you like, from eduction to finance.

So we can indeed use gadgets, apps, and bots for better things than merely turning people into neo-servants. That is, “sharing economy” apps like Postmates or Magic that turn people into butlers, maids, or assistants. And we should. Why? Because apps like those lead to a net waste of human potential for everyone: the butler never becomes a doctor, engineer, surgeon, and so everyone is worse off, including the (shudder) “master”. Thus, the simple fact is that every time that we choose, whether as consumers as producers, low over high tech, we are acting against our own best interests.

I know. That’s very abstract. So let’s take it one small step at a time.

The low tech versus high tech distinction is an old one. Remember when we used to call stuff “high-tech”, like it was golly-gee whiz-bang magical? Why did we do that? We used to categorize things as high tech based on what they were made of. Did they have transistors…microchips…some kind of inner logic to them? If they did, they were high tech. If they didn’t, they must have been dumb. They were low tech. Inert. Unprogrammable.

But that distinction no longer holds in today’s world. For everything is fast becoming programmable — from your TV to your fridge to your sofa to your car to your digital “self”. So everything is “high tech” — and thus, nothing is. If we think about high versus low tech in yesterday’s terms — whether a thing has an inner logic that makes it programmable or not — then we employ a difference that is no longer relevant. The simple truth is that today there’s little left that’s low tech. Thus, having theories and frameworks built for stuff made out of stone, but living in a world made out of smartphones, we are increasingly unable to think seriously, critically, or deeply about human ingenuity. Remember my jug? Even that’s high tech today.

And yet, critical thinking about human ingenuity, built on sharp and meaningful distinctions, has rarely been more necessary. For our creations are changing society, the planet, and our lives, in ways that are historically unprecedented, profound — but often deeply undesirable. Why? Because they can lead us rapidly to a dramatically lower quality of life. Social media makes us unhappier. Apps reduce jobs to something like neoserfdom, contractors who take all the risk for little reward. Bots watch our every expression and listen to our every word, creating newer, greater information asymmetries. Thus, we need desperately to think seriously and critically about technology — but employing yesterday’s concepts and frameworks, built for a dumb world, not a smart one, leaves us profoundly unable to do so.

How, then, might we begin?

The great question today isn’t whether things can be programmed or not — but what we will program them to do. Will we program the world around us to improve everyone’s quality of life? Or will we instruct merely to enrich a tiny number of people — at the cost even of their quality of life? That is the essential distinction between a redefined high and low tech: what we program the new world around us to do. These are two poles of a spectrum. Perhaps the truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between. And yet, we must struggle to make the better choice.

For it is we who have made the world a new place. One almost undreamt of in the long horizon of human history. Consider. Once, we were hostage to the natural world, victims of its fury, appeasing its gods with rituals. Then, after bloody revolution and long struggle, we supposed that we were free. And now we find that the truth is more complicated still. We are not merely free or unfree. We are something more. We are powerful. We are beginning to have the power to make the world around us do things that we almost never imagined.

The new world is different from the old world. It is alive. It is responsive, aware, animate. In it, we are not quite gods — but we are surely more than yesterday’s mortals. And yet. It is precisely our newfound power that may undo the very freedom we once won. Being free, we made a world which we could remake almost any way that we chose. And now the choice is before us. Will we make a world in which what matters most — us — is what is maximized, optimized, prioritized? Or one in which what matters most is devalued, stunted, diminished? Will the new programmable world be one in which the average person is neither a master nor a servant, but themselves — or one in which more efficient machines simply leave humans in ever more confining bondage?

Freedom is not merely “doing whatever you want”. True freedom is the capacity, and then the ability, to improve one’s quality of life — to reach one’s fullest potential. Thus, the great question today is this. When we program the world around us, are we programming it for such freedom — or are we programming it such that we are merely lines in the algorithm, captives of the program, serfs emptied of agency, servants barren of potential? Such a new world, no matter how it glitters, will surely be one in which we are diminished — in which we dream, rebel, defy, create, know, forgive, love, a little bit less each day. We should all, if we are reasonable people, want exactly the opposite of such a world: one in which every day, little by little, we grow towards happiness, meaning, and purpose.

A world where everything is made of transistors, chips, logic, programmability, demands that the idea of high versus low tech be redefined — and then that we employ that new distinction. To make better, wiser choices about our careers, leisure, education, jobs, accomplishments, goals, lives. That we do not squander on them the low, but instead devote them to the high. If we are to think seriously and meaningfully about prosperity, society, and human ingenuity, if we are to learn to harness our dreams and talents, efforts and struggles, for the truly worthwhile, instead of merely settling for using them to thwart our very own potential, then we must learn to differentiate between high and low.

For without making that distinction, consider where we end up. The worst we may hope for is to be servants of masters. But the best we may hope for is to be masters of servants. And that is just another word for a different kind of servant. One who is bound by the same system, algorithm, machine, merely by softer chains. And thus is also unfree to be the person that they were meant to be. Not by the gods, nor by man. But by themselves.

January 2016

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