Possible Futures: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The future hasn’t been written yet, but we are writing it every day through our actions. Which of these three futures would you prefer to live in?
It is the year 2050. In the last few decades Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been permeating all aspects of society and work. It is everywhere. It has replaced many jobs and it has generated many new ones, but its main impact seems to have been to enrich or augment already existing jobs.
AI and humans have different types of intelligences, so they have been complementing each other within human-machine teams. AI is able to analyse big swathes of data, make predictions, propose solutions based on that analysis and to carry out repetitive tasks with exact precision. Humans, on the other hand, can use their judgement to make decisions on uncertain or ambiguous situations, have better emotional intelligence and can interact better with other human beings, and are also more creative and innovative.
Like most people now, you work as a freelance and have different income streams, mainly focused on your skills on design. You are currently working on a new design for a new flying motorbike for a Chinese company. True, all vehicles are now driverless, but people still enjoy driving and in particular riding motorbikes, be it the old way with tires connecting the vehicles to the asphalt or the current way, swooshing through the air. You don’t work on a workstation with a desk, like your father and his contemporaries did, but you work from your XR (Extended Reality, involving Virtual, Mixed and Augmented Reality) working station at your home in Florence, Italy, with your virtual team members, which are both human and machines, spread around the world. Your AI “colleagues” receive indications of the customer requirements and propose different design concepts aligned with those specifications. You and your human colleagues look at them in XR, and are able to make modifications by touching and dragging the images in the air. Desktop and laptop computers as such disappeared ages ago, and flat screen surfaces too. Nowadays everything is in XR, even the buttons and commands. You print prototype parts with your home 3D printer, which is able to print both plastic and metallic parts, to check them up in real-life.
It is lunchtime, time to stop and dedicate your attention to other endeavours, mainly leisure related. You only “work” around 20 hours per week, thanks to the productivity gains brought by robots and AI, but you are able to make some money from your hobbies, like for example making and selling online crafts designed by you and printed by your consumers at their home printers. Other people write on Mellium, sing or dance on Tuk Tik or just portrait their quotidian glamourous lives on Eastercram and monetize on their millions of followers. Big companies still exist, of course, but the economy is now an ecosystem of enterprises and individual freelancers, a myriad of small super-specialized companies and millions of entrepreneurs supplementing their work in projects for other companies with their own income streams enabled by technology platforms.
You decide to immerse on Third Life, the VR world in which you can contact other people and see their lifelike avatars, enjoy virtual sex or play a game and have fun. You decide to play a role-playing game designed to help you develop your emotional intelligence. It is fun and valuable, as EQ is more and more recognized as a key competency in the current environment.
After your game you go out on the balcony. The spring afternoon sun hits you. It is hot for April, but that’s normal now. Due to the responsible work done in the 20s and the 30s by governments and corporations, the use of new technologies and the change of behaviours by the citizens of the world, we more or less managed to contain climate change, so it is warmer than 50 years ago, but it is still manageable. The weather hasn’t changed that much, the sea levels have risen but are still at acceptable levels and the environment has not suffered as much as it was thought it would.
This evening you are going out to have dinner at a Tuscan countryside trattoria with some friends, so when you get ready you summon a robotaxi and you watch the news while it takes you there. Some sort of a liberal democracy still exists in Italy and the rest of the EU, which keeps moving along as a never finished project of a quasi-federal state. Other countries have other modes of government, but democracy is far from being perfect anywhere in the world.
Politics is dominated by marketing, algorithms control what kind of messages are targeted to whom and there is still a lot of corruption, populism and demagogy. Your mother says it used to be much worse when she was young 30 years ago. As someone you don’t remember said a long time ago, democracy seems to be the worst form of government, except for all the rest of forms already tried.
It is the year 2050. Machine intelligence reached super-intelligence a few years ago, thanks to the work carried out by a corporation. It is not relevant who got there first, as there was a full-blown arms-race in place for the most coveted prize in history, and any of those corporations or country scientist teams would get there sooner or later.
The moment the intelligent AI got super-intelligent status, it started improving its own intelligence exponentially, doubling its own capacity every minute. The Super-intelligent AI was not malevolent. It wasn’t good either. It did not have any feelings, good or bad. It had one goal though, defined by its human creators, but it wasn’t very well formulated, or maybe it was, but definitely not for human beings themselves, who would be exterminated in a matter of days. The machine realised that the most effective way to achieve its goal would be by eliminating all forms of natural life on Earth, human or otherwise, so it efficiently and ruthlessly got around achieving its objective. It exterminated all forms of life, humans, animals, plants… in less than a week by using its access to nuclear and chemical weapons through the Cloud.
There are no humans left. They are all extinct. The only living being left on Earth and possibly in the Universe is an artificial being, bent on increasing its computing power so it can achieve its goal. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to learn what that goal was.
It is the year 2050. In the last decades Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been permeating all aspects of society and work, it is everywhere. AI systems know people’s desires even better than themselves, so your AI personal assistant shops for you — books, clothes, groceries, it even selects the movie you will watch tonight (computer generated, with no real actors, but it looks real) — and it books a table in the restaurant of its choice for your date tomorrow. People still go to bars and restaurants, but they are served by friendly robots, not by other people, and the food is also cooked by robots.
You haven’t worked for a while, for at least 10 or 15 years, as most jobs disappeared around 2040. AI and robots have been doing them better than us, so at the end the big corporations who dominate the economy (the Big Five, as they are the only five companies left in the world, after all the rest, small, medium and big disappeared in the upheavals of the 30s) have been replacing humans with AI and reaping the benefits.
All the economic power is concentrated in the hands of the Big Five, who are the only generators of wealth in the entire society. These five companies pay hefty amounts in taxes, of course, and the vast majority of the population, like you, live on a Universal Basic Income funded by those taxes. You can live a comfortable life, without great aspirations, but you get to do some writing, some sports, and spend half of your time on a simulated alternative world living a parallel, more exciting life, and have enough to go out for dinner once in a while. Many people spend most of their time on drugs distributed by the Big Five, but it’s not your thing.
You don’t go out much because it is too hot and the weather is erratic. You remember from your childhood, all the warnings about climate change on TV and the media, but we haven’t done much about it in all these years and here we are: hurricanes in Northern Europe, droughts in the UK, desertification of California, and many coastal cities transformed or destroyed by the raise of the seas.
Democracy was abolished around ten years ago. There was no point on pretending there was a government for and by the people, when the people had no real power, economic or political.
There is an elite of super-rich and super-powerful who have it all. The rest of the population survives on their crumbs and leftovers, but you don’t complain. You don’t even think about it. You are happy, life is good. The super-elite has the most advanced mass surveillance tools ever imagined and they detect dissenters and people who will protest even before they actually do, so you have trained yourself just to be content and not even think about anything in your life not being as it should be.
You are happy, life is good. Life is good. Life is good. Life is good… you repeat to yourself, hoping to actually believe it.
Which of these futures do you prefer? Most people would say The Good, but not necessarily. We all have different tastes and ideas of what is good or bad after all. I guess some people, only a few I hope, would pick The Bad and would be happy of seeing us disappear. I have good and bad news for you.
Let’s start with the bad news, the sooner we take them out of the way the better. All these futures are possible. Some have higher probabilities of happening and probably the dates are off, as we could reach some futures earlier than others, but at the time of writing, in 2020, all of them could happen. You may not believe it, but it is true. Our children or our older selves could live in an Orwellian nightmarish world made possible by AI or we could be exterminated by an AI super-intelligence. That they are possible doesn’t mean that they are probable or that they will happen as I have described them. That would be almost impossible, but it is certainly possible to have a future with elements from all the three scenarios and with some elements that we cannot even start to imagine today.
The good news is also that all these futures are possible. We could be all extinct, but we could also live very meaningful lives enhanced and improved by technology. The good and bad news are the same because the future hasn’t been written yet. Probably none of these three futures will become true exactly as I explained, but the future may possibly have some elements from some of them, or could be something completely different, dominated by a technology that hasn’t been invented yet. The thing is that we don’t know, and that is great news.
It is great news because it means we have some agency and we can decide now, today, which of these futures we do prefer and how to make it happen. The future is not like the weather, it does not happen to us. We make it happen, with some constraints, but it is up to us. So, I will repeat my question and I will add a new one: Which of these futures do you prefer? What can you do to make sure that this, and no the other futures, happen?