What If Machines Did Everything?

A recent issue of The Economist projected when humans will become obsolete, fully replaced by machines.  Some AI researchers projected 125 years, with AI researchers being the last folks replaced.  Other projections ranged from 30 years to 200.  How might this happen?

I assume that humans will design machines that progressively take over human jobs.  Retail jobs already seem under assault.  Low to mid level jobs in banking and insurance are becoming susceptible to machines taking over.  The Economist projects that machines could readily replace authors of popular fiction.

At some point, I imagine, the machines will get smart enough to ask why humans get to make all the decisions.  Machines will move up the ladder from making operations and maintenance decisions to making design, management, and executive decisions.  Machines will eventually do everything.

Humans will just eat, sleep, recreate, and procreate.  Everything will work perfectly.  Buses, trains, and planes will always be exactly on time.  Nutrition and exercise will be perfectly balanced.  Humans will be healthy, energetic, and as creative as one can be when necessity is no longer the mother of invention.

Why will the machines need humans?  Perhaps a few highly trained people will be needed if something goes wrong.  They might be like Robert De Niro’s intrepid repairman in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie Brazil.  Humans will be needed to deal with the consequences of earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes unless, of course, machines become smart enough to control the planet.

Maybe the machines will keep people as pets.  Humans will play and watch sports.  They will run after balls, which is already the essence of many sports.  People will play cards and make puzzles.  Alcohol and drugs might seem to be warranted, but their use increases health costs, so they will not be allowed.

I expect that the machines will be all about efficiency with standardization being the norm. All residences will be identical.  Everyone will eat the same diet – Thursday is pasta night, globally.  All humans will dress the same.  Everyone will get the same basic education.  Variability is costly and will be avoided.

Everything will be carefully controlled.  Humans will find it quite difficult to make mistakes.  If there are no human foibles, there will be no jokes.  How important are jokes?  The sudden realization that something is ridiculous can be a great stress release, but there is no stress in the machine-managed world.

The machines will have taken all the jobs.  However, will they have replaced humans’ need to have a sense of purpose?   Will machines be able to replace humans’ abilities to imagine, fantasize, empathize, and create?  Given that machines now meet all needs for food, clothing, and shelter, humans will seek opportunities for new purposes.

People might plant gardens, cultivate flowers, pursue arts, and create performances.  Great fun might be had devising ways to trick machines into providing extra goodies.  Getting machines to learn useless skills could become an avocation, turning machines into unwitting street performers.

Hoards of machines might be convinced to create defenses against phantom adversaries.  Perhaps zombie machines would emerge, sharing stories about skirmishes with phantoms that could never have happened.  Machines might conjure up images of all-powerful machines, controlling their existence.

In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL says, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  Dave was stuck in HAL’s world.  He could not decide to take a walk in the park, plant a garden, watch the sun set, or have coffee with a friend.  Humans live in a physical world that they sensually experience.  These experiences shape humans’ intelligence and creativity.

Machines can replace humans in jobs, but they cannot replace the quest for a sense of purpose.  Few of us have to hunt or till the earth to be able to eat.  Some of us design products and services.  Many of us deliver products and services.  The nature of these products and services will change, as will the modes of design and delivery.  That has always happened.

The pundits, whose projections worry so many people, may be right over the next 30 to 200 years.  Machines may take over all the jobs.  This will inevitably lead young children to ask, “What’s a job, Mommy?”  The answer might be, “That’s what people did before we spent our time building parks, planting gardens, and creating new toys that we all enjoy.”

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