31 Jul We’re all doomed, doomed. Probably…
A little over a year ago, the UN published its annual World Population Prospects report (1). It makes for interesting reading. Turns out we’re a fertile bunch: population today stands at a little over 7.6 billion souls and the report projects that this will increase to 8.6b by 2030, 9.8b by 2050 and 11.2b by 2100. We spawn around 83m new tiny people every year – so if it takes you five minutes to read this blog then just under 800 of us will have entered the world.
My childhood happened during a period of somewhat heightened international tension – the US were taking on the Vietcong and the Second World War settlement had left some philosophical differences between the victors, leading to walls, witch hunts, airlifts, trench coats, poisoned umbrellas, miniature cameras and quite a lot of novels about a man called Bond, James Bond.
Just as I emerged from school we Brits even decided that we were still up for a big old fight and sailed to the other side of the world to explain quite vigorously to General Galtieri that, actually, we’d really quite like to keep these rocks, old boy, so if you could kindly bugger off that would be most appreciated.
The other backdrop to my youth was a niggling feeling that we were all doomed. If it wasn’t the new ice age, then it was nuclear Armageddon, some of our Irish cousins blowing up my local pubs, terrible diseases popping up and scaring us all to death or the rise of the machines that would end humanity.
Only it didn’t, ‘cause just over 400 babies have now been born (I’m half way through my thoughts, you see) and, in countries like my own, unemployment is at historic lows, minimum wage legislation and low/no taxation on low earners came into being and our healthcare system is so good that one of those 400 screaming bundles of joy born here may well live to over 100 years old.
I love technology. Always have, always will. My home is littered with plastic and metal crap that I can’t seem to part with because it was ‘my precious’ back in the day. But here’s the conundrum. Why is it that technology has not made humanity redundant? Well, it’s mostly because the technology doesn’t quite live up to its hype.
Of course, a computer will win at Chess and Go. I don’t underestimate the programmatic skill that made it happen, but if you tell a computer every single move that ever has been made and give it the rule book then, chances are, its nigh-on infinite memory and a few lines of great code will see it claim victory.
But how did the computer feel after winning? What did it say when a mic was thrust towards its screen? Nothing, of course – it’s just next year’s plastic and metal crap. It cannot experience the joy of winning because it’s not sentient and never, ever will be. It did look a little smug though…
I wrote a blog recently praising a guy called Prof Chris Reed. His brilliance and modesty impressed the hell out of me. He’s an AI argumentation expert and, in a candid moment, he reckoned we were decades away from getting a computer to have a good row with us and win. Right now, a pronoun will bring Alexa to her knees. She is so not sentient. (Oh, I do so love a pronoun gag.)
The future will look pretty much the same as now, I reckon. We will make war and we will make love. We will do the most terrible things and the most amazing things. We will control population – already the fertility rates in Europe were 1.6 births per woman between 2010-2015. We will do amazing things with food – increasing productivity and shifting emphasis away from animal protein diets, towards plant based diets. (I’m a vegetarian with vegan tendencies, get with the times people.) We will cure cancer, dementia and maybe even the common cold. We will build exoskeletons and we will continue building, creating and improving at least until the sun goes out.
And what about technology? Well that won’t kill us, silly. It will do what it’s always done: it will enhance our lives (mostly); it will become invisible as it just cracks on; and it won’t make us redundant – because if you use standing upright as the start of our evolutionary assent we’ve got 4,000,000 years’ head start. And we is Actually Intelligent, innit.