Are humans the cats of the future?

My best mate bought a cat recently and I honestly can’t see the point in it. All the cat seems to do is lounge around, eat food, go out and play and essentially do what ever it wants safe in the knowledge that my mate and his girlfriend will cater to its every need.

And yet is this the future we have set up for ourselves? A pointless one. With Artificial Intelligence (AI) due to over take our own by 2090, according to most scientists in the field, will we need to look after ourselves anymore? AI has been billed as the last invention we will ever need to make as the machines do the thinking for us. So how will that affect the way we live in the future? Even in films like Her and Ex Machina people still think and work for themselves. Currently our society, like most on this planet, is based on financial acquisition and expenditure. We work hard, we build experience and, depending on our field of employment, we get paid accordingly. Then based on our income we spend our money and achieve a certain standard of living. I realise I have massively over-simplified basic economics here but for the principle of how AI will affect us it will suffice.

If AI is set to over take our own intelligence, and with machines ever more able to take on traditionally human tasks, will we need to make money any more to achieve a certain life style? Will machines till the land and grow the food, handle our healthcare, transport goods to locations, solve our energy crisis, build more robots where needed, the list goes on and in many of those examples machines are already doing those jobs. This in turn could create the equivalent of a communist society where everyone for the first time is truly equal. No matter our gender, race, religion, sexuality, political affiliation etc we can all be supported by machines in equal measure – theoretically no-one should go without. This all seems great but does that mean we will become like my mate’s cat where our lives are spent lounging around safe in the knowledge that a robot will look after us?

In 2014, Elon Musk described AI as “our greatest existential threat”, and Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates seem to agree. However, that threat is often discussed in relation to the military with a Terminator-esq future on our horizon. But there is a much more human issue that needs to be dealt with, whether or not AI turns against us or work for us, and that is the area of value. Many of us struggle to come to terms with not working when we retire. Human nature has tended to dictate our need for more/bigger/better and those that don’t work are more prone to depression. AI taking on people’s roles will exacerbate all of these issues.

As we see AI permeate more of our daily lives through the likes of Google’s Industrial Perception robots, which are taking on manufacturing and logistics processes, and Motion AI, which is reducing the need for call centres, we could fast see the job market shrinking. Obviously there are counter arguments to show that robotics and AI will also create many jobs, but this is looking towards 2025 where AI will still be in its infancy – not 2090 where it potentially surpasses our own intelligence.

Governments are already debating the social vs financial costs of investing in AI and robotic technology. A council in London recently decided against investing in automated street-sweeping machines because even though the machines would save the taxpayer money in terms of urban improvement, it would cost more over all in terms of spend on supporting the unemployed.

The AI issue is going to be a huge job for governments to tackle across multiple areas.

Firstly, they need to ensure they have in depth knowledge of what the AI technology industry is doing – we need to be prepared. Secondly, ensuring that appropriate rules and regulations are put in place (AI could be the new genetic engineering). Sadly, we can’t rely on big business to be so ethically minded as per the example above when it comes to job losses and the repercussions. Thirdly, governments need to have the services in place to support those people who do lose their jobs to a robot. And finally, they need to shift education and job skilling towards the needs of the future rather than just current needs – babies being born today will live in this AI world. In the end we must stop being short-termist in our thinking and that goes for all of us – not just governments.

  • Dan West is the digital strategy director at FCB.

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