A non-alarmist perspective of the A.I.pocalypse - Part 2

Part 2: A Failure of Imagination

Let’s continue the series on why the A.I. takeover are overblown. I recommend reading part 1 before digging into this one, although the arguments in this essay are different enough to be read separately. This time I would like to talk about our static worldview and our over-reliance on prediction


Who let the pessimists out? 

Did you notice that all the alarmists have a static worldview? It’s quite ironic that most of these people self-identify as scientifically-leaning progressives while they concern themselves with conserving the economy and fighting any invention like Luddites used to do centuries ago. 

Peter Thiel touches this subject in his book, “Zero to One”. His 2x2 matrix divides the world in 4 categories


"The definite optimist has a concrete plan for the future and strongly believes in that future being better than today. The indefinite optimist is bullish on the future but lacks any design and plan for how to make such a future possible. The definite pessimist has a specific vision for the future but believes that future to be bleak. The indefinite pessimist has a bearish view on the future but no idea what to do about it."

Thiel makes the claim that it’s the definite optimists who turn 0 into 1 and push our society forward. People who look at the future as slightly-altered continuation of today will tend to focus on conservation of status-quo sprinkled with interventions when some random event disturbs the emotional tranquility of the society.

One only needs to look at SF movies to notice this trend. The best fiction of the past was technological triumphalist, even independent of the political ideology that was informing the narrative. The utopic yet-communist Star Trek and the imperialistic fascist Star Wars served as inspirations for many young people (myself included) to create, to innovate for a better, brighter future. It might be anecdotal but I am of the opinion that movies serve as an accurate barometer of cultural mood. And the SF of the past seems like a bright ray of light compared to the dystopian movies of today. Avatar and Interstellar deal with a future devastated by our abuse of natural resources. Mad Max’s humanity is divided between exploitative, abusive, power hungry elite and the oppressed commoners. That the world is going to be destroyed by capitalist selfish tendencies of future industrialists is a given.  Returning to AI, we only need to look at Terminator, Ex Machina or the much beloved Black Mirror, to discover out-of-control machines only interested in our complete annihilation. 

The most common provided solution, a combination of ecologist, vague spiritualism and love (love is the secret ingredient of all interventionist policies) speaks more to the not-so-distant past than the exciting future. It’s like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his ill-conceived appreciation for the noble savage, became a SF writer. 

Our predictions are not that reliable

Let’s return to the doomsday scenario. Lots of unemployed people, chaos and destruction. Before addressing the validity of the prediction let's remember that we have seen this movie before

Employees have been worrying about the rising tide of automation for 200 years now, and for 200 years employers have been assuring them that new jobs will naturally materialise to take their place. After all, if we look at the year 1800, some 74% of all Americans were farmers, whereas by 1900 this figure was down to 31%, and by 2000 to a mere 3%. And yet, this hasn’t led to mass unemployment. In 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes was predicting that we’d all be working just 15-hour weeks by the year 2030. Yet, since the 1980s, work has only been taking up more of our time, bringing waves of burnouts and stress in its wake. One could say that we are distancing ourselves from the idleness passionately advocated for by Bertrand Russell, not trending towards it. The more we automate, the more work we have to do. But this time will be different. This time the machines will really get us. 

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” said that baseball-playing turned philosopher, Yogi Berra. Nassim Taleb devoted a lot of his time fighting the elite’s tendency of mapping the future. His most famous book “Black Swan” accurately describes the impulse of forecasters to ignore large deviations and focus on averages to predict the future. His core argument is that complex systems are impossible to predict and that preemptive policies more unexpected consequences than benefits. 

The most worrisome blindspot of all this pesimistic worldview is the opportunity cost. A point brilliantly argued by the economist Henry Hazlitt, who noticed that new jobs are less noticeable tha lost ones. It’s much easier for us to notice the fired US factory workers than all the new professions that did not exist 10 years ago. 

Thinking about the future requires imagination. It seems to be extremely hard for the pessimists we examined above to think about new industries, let alone trust the human ingenuity to create a new shinny ways forward. When the car replaces the horse carriage it’s easier to see all the displaced construction workers and fired carriage drivers than to predict the rise of uber.  

Not to say that we can not or should not look at trends. Just to be careful, as Scott Belski remarked, not to confuse the forecast for the future with an investment thesis. "The future won’t happen until the present is ready for it."