The arrival of the present millennium filled many with a sense of hope for the future. This hope is underwritten by a continuing faith in the technological and scientific progress that has produced so many things that we have come to take for granted, among them the Internet. In the year 2000, Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote a provocative article for Wired magazine entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” arguing that human beings face the realistic possibility of extinction because of competition from intelligent robots, which are made possible by technological advancements in artificial intelligence. Furthermore, 21st-century technologies – genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics – have the potential to significantly extend the average human lifespan, but they are so powerful that in them also lurk grave dangers. Joy locates these dangers in the potential (or actual) ability of robots, engineered organisms and nanobots to self-replicate. If these technologies go out of control, this amplifying factor can lead to substantial damage in the physical world, not unlike the potential of computer viruses to do harm. Worse, unlike conventional “weapons of mass destruction,” 21st-century technologies are much more readily available to individuals or small groups, and having knowledge alone is sufficient to enable their deployment.
Joy’s article is a goldmine for those who, in a triumphant spirit, want to continue championing technological progress as an unmitigated good: many of the worst-case scenarios about which he worries have not come to pass. But is he really that far off? The thought that humans may become economically redundant at some point may appear less and less of a fantasy if we continue along the trajectory of unbridled technological progress outlined by Joy, and enabled by a combination of the logic of capitalism and our human hopes and fears. The frightening possibility is that the future economy is one that has no need for us, if 21st-century technologies can do everything better, cheaper and faster than humans can. As Joy notes:
“…with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about this? Very uncomfortable… And if our own extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development, shouldn’t we proceed with great caution?”
This raises pressing questions about human life and society. Here I wish to offer another extreme possibility for us to consider. An alternative to Joy’s dystopian picture, a comparatively sanguine outcome, was outlined by Karl Marx in The German Ideology:
“…in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”
For Marx, what follows machines making human beings redundant is a scenario in which we can be freed from being mere appendages of machines; we then have the leisure to realise possibilities formerly impossible, finally being able to focus on attaining self-realisation and not needing to work more than what is necessary. Machines will take care of repetitive and toilsome labour on our behalf. The division of labour and narrow specialisation gives way to the free choice of whatever interests the individual, not just for the few, but also for the many.
But why should this scenario obtain (and how can we ensure that it does), and not Joy’s alternative of human extinction? To view human beings merely in terms of economic value is to not view them as having intrinsic worth, and if so, we may be overtaken by machines sooner than we think. Lacking an understanding of our essence and identity, of what makes us human, we may be unable to articulate what makes us worth keeping around. This is not to say that such an understanding is easy, or even possible to achieve. But in its absence (or perhaps even with it), we may go the way of the dinosaurs, if we are unable (or unwilling) to stop this process. In one of the many memorable quotes from Joy’s article, George Dyson warns, “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.”
There is good reason to believe that at many points in world history, good sense and the human spirit have prevailed. But even if extreme possibilities are unlikely to come to pass, we should still proceed with caution and a sense of moderation. At any rate, it is not too early to start pondering strategies, policies and legislation, because the future is almost here.
Nicholas Cai is Research Assistant at the HEAD Foundation. His research and teaching interests are chiefly in the areas of ancient and modern political philosophy, and he recently completed an M.A. thesis on Rawls and toleration.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.