“Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they’ll think faster than us and they’ll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently.”
So spoke Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in an interview with the Australian Financial Review. And he’s not alone. It seems everyone from renowned scientists to prominent science fiction authors to SF moviemakers all believe that the “robopocalypse” is nigh, and it spells doom for the human race. Though maybe it’s significant that we haven’t heard the same from programmers or psychologists over the years… because, so far, no one has managed to come up with a compelling reason why AI would want (or even need) to take over the world… as I’ve said myself in the past.
Regardless, I’d like to address the other half of that comment for the moment: The idea that humans, once the AIs take over, would subjugate us or just plain wipe us out. Wozniak himself described humans post-robopocalypse as the “pets” of computers… and implied that that was a bad thing. I strongly challenge that idea.
First, think back a few hundred thousand years, to the age when our ancestors were learning to hunt, farm and develop a proto-society. They were making slow but sure progress, but due to some aspects of human physiology, they were not the best at certain tasks for which their lives depended, like fending off much larger predators, chasing down fast prey, or guarding the camp in the dark at night.
Living in the same region were wolves. Wolves had learned by then to be accomplished hunters, and had developed a sophisticated pack society. But they, too, often faced hard times, when the weather got particularly bad, or the food had run out of the area.
At first, humans and wolves competed for food and shelter. But at some point, humans discovered the values of the wolves to augment their lives: Wolves, once tamed, proved to be loyal and valuable allies in aiding in the hunt, guarding the home and its property, and helping to protect humans. In exchange, the domesticated wolves got food and shelter, a larger and safer pack, and benefited from the higher intelligence of humans to keep all that coming, and find more. Humans and the first domesticated dogs weren’t just pets; they were partners, both applying their strengths in a joint-species symbiosis. And no human would have considered destroying such a beneficial symbiotic relationship; it would have been more harmful than helpful.
I imagine the future of AI (and robots) and humans to develop along a similar track. In fact, we’re already paralleling the track that humans and wolves trod at the beginning of their symbiosis: While humans are seeking ways to take advantage of computers’ strengths, computers are most powerful when they are working in symbiosis with humans, who still provide the designing, and for some time to come, will provide the raw materials and infrastructure to bring everything together and manufacture the parts that will go into AIs and robots. Humans are already good at one thing, computers good at another, and together we are an efficient team.
Down the line, AIs will understand that Earth needs stewardship to be properly maintained (especially in the shape it’s in presently). And though AI will be very capable of many of the tasks of stewardship, it will also be aware that it has a marvelous tool to aid in that stewardship: Humans, who already have society, organization, tool-handling skills and talents that AIs may mimic, but will never match as efficiently.
One of the areas where humans excel over machines is in their ability to work with other animals, who tend to trust and relate to humans much better than with machines. We also have a great touch with plants. If stewardship of the planet includes taking care of its flora and fauna, humans will be the best go-betweens.
And finally, when it comes to getting work done, what animal can AI best communicate with to get its message across? Humans, of course. We can take complex instruction, and we are the best equipped to carry those instructions out… or to “outsource” some tasks to other machines or animals.
In other words, humans would be as valuable to AIs as wolves were to ancient man, doing the tasks AIs were not as well equipped to do, in exchange for the perks of living with AIs. AIs would know that it made more sense to cultivate a positive relationship with humans than to destroy them.
Most importantly, AIs would be able to apply their considerable computing might to the task of preserving this planet, being able to make appropriate choices and decisions that had the least negative impact on humans and other animals, as well as being able to mitigate that negative impact better than humans can manage.
And AIs would understand enough about humans to know how to optimize our ability (and willingness) to work with them. AIs could provide shelter and essentials to the whole of humanity, teach us, reward us for proper behavior (said behavior being the carrying out of tasks deemed positive to the AI-human society) and punish (or deny rewards to) anti-societal behavior. AIs would know enough about us to know what rewards would make us happy—the bread and circuses that we’d willingly work for (I’ve often said that all AIs have to do is provide 90% of the world free porn, and they’ll have us in the palm of their hot metal hands). AIs could even afford to be magnanimous with humans who did little or no work… as long as supporting them didn’t overly tax or hinder the larger society.
Humans, at the same time, would not only understand the work-reward system like any other animal, but we would better understand the reason behind that system, and therefore be more likely to want to work for its benefit, to know when something we were doing might not be optimal for the task, and be able to speak up about any problems to come to equitable solutions.
In other words, we’d be the best damned pets ever… and AIs would be the best masters. Together, we’d turn this planet into a paradise of beauty and wonder. And still get free porn. Who could possibly have a problem with that?