This article is a response to “New Jobs in a World of Job Killing Machines” published on Linkedin by Mark Jahn. Mark’s a writer specializing in economics and finance. His upbeat article drew on recent history to suggest that while technology has made some jobs obsolete and dramatically cut the number of people required to do others, it has at the same time triggered expositions in whole new occupations. That’s accurate over the past two centuries, but it ignores what Nassim Nicholas Taleb cleverly dubbed the “turkey fallacy.” That is the idea that since recent history showed something to be true, it will always remain valid.
In his book, The Black Swan, Taleb describes the fallacy thus:
Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.
Our hapless Thanksgiving turkey’s confidence in the certitude of his glowing future feedings would have been at its highest the very day the hand that had always previously had food in it grabbed his neck and wrung the life out of him. Turkeys are not the only animals prone to this error in viewing recent history as indicative of the future. We humans are quite prone to making the same mistake.
Something has worked in the past, until — well, it unexpectedly no longer does, and what we have learned from the past turns out to be at best irrelevant or false, at worst viciously misleading.
Mark Jahn’s “New Jobs in a World of Job Killing Machines” and any other comforting assurances like it seem to me to take such a brief stretch of history into account that they are sure to be committing the turkey fallacy. They describe a calm space, call it a room, where jobs always multiply. The problem is there is an Elephant and a Tyrannosaurus Rex in the room. The optimistic article based on the imperturbable linear-progression of recent history (which Earth’s full history shows to be a fiction) ignores both giants to reach its, “What, me worry?” view of the future of work.
The elephant in the room is AI. Self-learning AIs running on supercomputers inexpensively made from massively-multiplexed, mundane machines are already digesting and analyzing big data. They use evolutionary, trial-and-error improvement to “learn” how to obtain an optimal result. They begin with a small set of stupid heuristics, test them to see which works best, then make a second set of algorithms by randomly making modifications to the keeper from the first round. They keep repeating this process, making micro improvements over millions of iterations till they develop extraordinarily sophisticated, accurate algorithms to make sense of databases so vast and complex no human programmer can write a program that can effectively act on the data. We can look at the algorithm the AI has written, but no human programmer can comprehend how or why it works. It just does.
With the exponential growth-curve in computing-power per dollar showing no sign of cresting, it is reasonable to predict that AI, which is already replacing human workers in knowledge work, will extend its spread as its cost drops below that of human labor doing the same job. Robots controlled by increasingly powerful AI will also displace much or the remaining manual labor currently done by humans. Aside from a few talented artisans doing work robots haven’t mastered, those who own the robots will own the world.
Now that we’ve defined the Robotics plus AI elephant-in-the-room, we can effectively ignore that beast because the T Rex in the room will eat the elephant anyway.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex that comes with the Growth Forever religion is the near geometric increase in the ecological harm it has begun to do since the Industrial Revolution. Infinite growth in exploitation of resources is not possible on a finite planet. The image below explains why pyramid marketing schemes are bound to collapse, but the math underlying it applies equally well to infinite growth in any finite system.
The evidence of the harm we are doing with our current push for unending growth in profits from eternally increasing productivity, and the existential threat it poses to continued human existence, is below.
1. We are now in the Sixth Great Extinction event on Earth and the first due to human activity rather than some planetary natural disaster.
2. Global warming is real, it is human-made, and we are nearing a tipping point where temperature rises trigger massive and irreversible methane releases from defrosting of tundras and frozen methane clathrates in cold oceans and lakes. Once we start down that slippery slope, we will be powerless to stop runaway warming, and it will become so extreme that it will end all higher-level life on Earth.
3. Due to our overuse and misuse of drug therapies in humans and in agriculture, we face a growing threat of a global pandemic ending human life. Overuse of drug treatments drove the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria and incurable viruses. Gene splicing may provide a solution, but thanks to the law of unintended consequences it could just as easily provide the pathogen that dooms us.
4. As self-learning AI gets smarter and supercomputers become ever more powerful, The Terminator's quote, " Skynet has become self-aware." could become a reality. Super intelligent robots might have an agenda of their own, and slavishly serving the interests of a self-destructive life form of vastly inferior intelligence to their own might not be on their to-do list.
5. Some egomaniacal, tyrannical world leader with nuclear weapons at hand might, in a misguided belief that he can add to his glory by conquering the whole world, may trigger a nuclear Armageddon and thus save us from any of the above four fates by ensuring we are all dead before any of them can happen.
I am not suggesting that the Elephant- and T-Rex-in-the-Room problems are intractable. We made these problems, and we can, therefore, solve them. What I am saying is that they will not be solved by pretending they aren't in the room.