My last post was a rebuttal to a post on The Listservwhich I was pleasantly surprised to have re-tweeted by Reddit Politics. It seems only reasonable that following on from that I write a piece on what I would post if I won the Listserv Lottery. Also, from comments that others have made in their posts it seems you’re not allowed to include URLs so this way I can just say “google for ‘desiderium sciendi listserv’ and you’ll find my contribution”

If I had the chance to speak to roughly 25K people I would write a post about AI, robots and the future of work. I have been collecting an excellent list of blog posts on this issues – which have been becoming increasingly common in the last 1-2 years. The general gist is it used to be the case that lower skilled workers could find alternative employment when their current profession was no-longer needed. However, as more and more cheap versatile robots such as Baxter come into workshops and production lines and as things like Google’s driverless cars replace huge swathes of the current workforce it’s looking less likely that there will be other jobs for people to easily move to.

To use a deliberately provocative analogy at one point in Huxley’s Brave New World one of the Alpha’s says something along the lines of “It’s the duty of society to use technology to remove the need for first Epsilons, then Deltas – to see how far we can go”.

It seems to me that there are three separate strands to this thinking – (1) can the robots and AIs do the job?, (2) will society allow the too? and (3) if we do – what do we do with ourselves afterwards?

For the first part of this the answer is increasingly looking like ‘yes’. Just today TED and the X-Prize Foundation have created a competition for an AI / robot to speak at TED (i.e. to draft and deliver a talk and undertake a Q&A – not just read one out). While they are still hammering out the winning conditions and admit that it might be 20 years before it is claimed they also say that they are planning to exhibit the closest thing to a winner every year from now on.

There is no doubt that there’s an enormous focus in this area from Boston Dynamics being bought by Google, the same company acquiring Deepmind and their other robot projects to old F15 fighter jets being remade into pilotless AI flown drones and many other examples.

The next question is how will society react to this? Well, robots in places like car plants have been around for a long time. Now they can work directly alongside human workers instead of having to be in separate safety cages. Unions throughout the world seem to have so far stood back and watched this happen as something inevitable. It very much remains to be seem if the Teamsters will continue to do this when the multi-million driver related jobs in the US start to be replaced by automated trucks.

The conversation as to what happens next is already taking shape in several places including the technology press, the popular press, so-called new-media, economists (more economists), academia and political circles.

It’s undeniable that there is already a vast wealth-gap in many countries leading to what some are calling an effective internal two-state system where those who inherit wealth or work in jobs that cannot easily be replaced by AI or robotics are inexorably pulling away from those that can be. Is this an unalterable trend?

One alternative is protectionism – although that would only work while every country in the world agrees, otherwise it’s economic suicide.

Another is the somewhat radical but highly interesting notion of just giving state money to the poor – enough to make the average conservative’s head explode.

The long term solution might have to be a lot more radical. If you’ve not followed any of the links from this post so far I ask you to please follow this one – a story called Manna by Marshal Brain.

Manna shows two very different possible futures. In one traditionally lower paying jobs are first highly automated by effectively turning people into robots(earpieces with commands from directing AIs telling them what to do) then automated out of work completely and, unable to find any alternative, are moved to giant ‘camps’ where they are house, fed and given TV to watch but where they are unable to find any means to improve their lives. The other significantly utopian alternative is a country that has eliminated all work-for money, it being replaced by robots, and instead all citizens are given the same number of credits each month to spend, save or pool as they wish. It’s not quite up to the Star Trek ideal of a culture without money but it’s close.

Of course neither scenario is going to truly come to pass but the story is very good for creating discussion and, I think, should be a standard high-school source.

So, the question is what happens next? Well, as a person who works for an organisation that helps introduce digital systems to replace humans shuffling paperwork and being good friends with someone that works at Google and sees driverless cars driving past almost every day what I can tell you is that while the future is very far from certainly going in any direction it’s definitely going to get there faster than almost everyone thinks. Perhaps it’s time to try some societal A/B testing as proposed by Tofler’s Future Shock.

I’m glad this topic is being thought about and discussed in many circles, as I think it may have the highest impact of any social change in our lifetimes, but it needs to move into the mainstream media as soon as possible to really open up debate.