Will we become the first ever obsolete generation?

Tom Norman
Jul 18, 2018 · 5 min read

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Albert Einstein

Whether or not this quote was actually from Albert Einstein is up for debate, but at least it contains a nice message to live by: you should measure yourself according to your merits not everybody elses’.

This is an important reminder, particularly with the rise of Artificial Intelligence.

One major fear about AI is that we are petrified of being made obsolete. We’re beginning to see computers and machines that are able to do our work even more effectively, efficiently and more cost-effectively than we are able to. Soon enough, if machines are able to do our jobs better than we are, there’s not much stopping our employers from using them instead. Once this happens on a major scale, it’s likely many of will be forced to rely on social contributions for our survival, at least for a while.

Except visionary historian and author Yuval Noah Harari has doubts about this too. In the past, our working class provided an immense value to society. Our society’s poorest members were supported and kept alive because they were the cogs that kept the industrial wheel turning. Yet if production and business no longer rely on these cogs, there is little-to-no financial incentive to continue supporting them. Of course, we would hope that morality alone is enough justification to continue supporting our poorest, but in his book Homo Deus — A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari suggests that for the first time in history that we have an obsolete class, and therefore it’s the first time in history that this ethical issue is really put to the test.

Yet before we surrender to the harsh idea that most of our society will be obsolete, let’s come back to Einstein’s quote for a moment. If we’re going to judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, or if you’re going to judge a human by their ability to analyse data, perform repetitive functions or their ability to use data to make predictions, then they will live their entire life believing they’re stupid.

Or in this case even obsolete.

So how should we judge humans?

One place, although imperfect, would be to look at attachments our attachments, which go far beyond just mechanics. In Harlow’s study on attachment in monkeys (image credit here) he learned that baby monkeys would spend more time with the cloth ‘surrogate mother’ than they would the wire ‘surrogate mother, despite the fact that the wire mother was their only food source.

In addition to this, he found that baby monkeys would go to the cloth mother if something scary or frightening entered their cage. What relevance does this have to humans? The link I’d like to make is that our needs and requirements are beyond just mechanical. Currently, technology is very good at analysing data, making predictions with that data and automating things, but it’s not so good at replicating the attachments that we need in life.

In the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’ they reach the same conclusion. After losing her boyfriend in a car accident, the main character Martha uploads all the data she has on him to a website and is offered an animatronic version of him that’s able to respond exactly how he would have. In fact, it’s so lifelike that she’s able to live with it as if it were a real human, even kissing and having sex with it. Yet as the episode also explores, despite being virtually identical to the original Ash, his humanness couldn’t be replicated. There’s something beyond replication and mechanics that technology just can’t reproduce yet.

If ‘humanness’ in a fictional series isn’t convincing enough that humans are far from being obsolete, let’s look at something that we’ve not yet understood in humans, let alone found a way to replicate in machines — consciousness. Or if we look at it at the most fundamental level consciousness is essentially “a dollop of atom being aware of themselves”.

Way beyond being mechanical, we’re still unable to explain why humans are conscious. Therefore, currently we completely lack the ability to build a machine with consciousness too. Why does this matter?

We often hear that our brains are simply a series of complex algorithms that are processing data and reacting dependent on the results. This metaphor is great at explaining human responses:

  • If the surface is hot remove your finger, biological processes
  • If your body temperature exceeds its normal amount begin a process including sweating and vasodilation to cool it down

These algorithms can even explain psychological processes, or certain situations triggering the feeling of anxiety, happiness etc.

However algorithms alone do a terrible job at explaining consciousness and creativity. These two traits are distinctively non-mechanical and non algorithmic.

Fundamentally algorithms are about predictions. They are the understanding that precise inputs completed in a particular sequence result in a predictable output. Therefore machines are great for spotting patterns, analysing and using these results to make predictions, but our “humanness” lies just beyond this predictability.

So if we were to measure a human, perhaps the best term of measurement is simply our “humanness”. It is our unpredictableness, our creativity and our empathy that separates us from machines.

For the foreseeable future, I find it difficult to see machines as a threat to our humanness. Rather than making us obsolete, it’s time to make them our ally. Like that calm, cool-headed friend who always knows how to act in stressful situations, machines can be this analytical, rational support to help us make predictions about how to act.

Humans will remain the ultimate decision-maker. We don’t possess the analytical, computational power that machines do, but working alongside them we are able to augment our intelligence, whilst making their intelligence relevant and acceptable in a living, non-mechanical world.

In the 1960s, the iconic computer scientist Licklider theorised about something he called the ‘man-computer symbiosis’. Rather than replacing humans, he predicted that both intelligences would work alongside each other in a way that strengthens the value of both.

What role do you think humans will play in the future? Comment below.


For a better, more connected, decentralized future

Tom Norman

Written by

I like to think and drink coffee. Sometimes at the same time.



For a better, more connected, decentralized future

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