Will You Become Obsolete?
In my previous article I pointed out how technology could take over all jobs which involve reproduction of what was already invented, all tasks that follow a particular predictable and programmable process, eventually leaving humans only job of discovering or creating new things to improve existing systems, invent new ones and conquer new challenges.
This basically makes all manual labor obsolete. The process is indeed well under way, and pretty significant parts of human economy already depend entirely on machines and information technology (programs) that run them.
The more this process intensifies, the more technology evolves, and the more science discovers we are beginning to realize that there is a discoverable and eventually programmable process to everything that exists and everything that happens, including things we generally ascribe to creativity of the human mind. For example we discover that machines too can produce heart wrenching music, that they can solve complex problems that previously required exclusively human ingenuity, and that they can indeed even make scientific discoveries.
This means that repetitive manual labor may not be the only thing that machines can do, perhaps even better than ourselves, and that they could effectively replace us even in the department of creation and discovery. There is no wonder that high class musicians didn’t take kindly to the evidence that shows that machines too can play incredible classical music.
As a budding musician myself I can somewhat understand how this feels. It effectively means that all this effort I put into developing skills and getting a feeling for music, and a sense of style, can be outdone by a machine running a program with a few random elements built into it. It is part of what made me think about this very topic to begin with.
This isn’t where the story ends, however. It is merely the beginning, in fact, because if things which we believed to be a matter of soul and feeling can be reduced to reprogrammable algorithms then it isn’t much of a jump to conclude that intelligent, sentient life itself can be reduced to the same components. Everything effectively becomes understandable as just a sum of its parts.
Not only can then machines play music and make scientific discoveries, but they could effectively become capable of enjoying the music they play and becoming excited of the discoveries they make. They could become capable of feeling and reflection, and before we know it, they could be clamoring for recognition of their ability and right to do so.
A birth or evolution of the new intelligent specie on this planet, however, doesn’t necessarily mean our obsolescence. It could mean our obsolescence only if such a specie is sufficiently superior enough to make everything we as ordinary humans ever try to do seem inconsequential and irrelevant.
Considering its current track record technology indeed tends to be superior in getting things done than unassisted human beings. This is the whole point behind its existence, to make things better and to make them faster. Efficiency and increased utility is what it was designed to do, and it is the reason why it was designed to begin with.
It only stands to reason that the intelligent life that it may spawn will therefore be superior as well. Superior robotic bodies, superior connectivity, superior processing power are all at their disposal.
It is then safe to say that as far as utilitarian superiority is concerned, the would-be machine race would indeed win out.
Does this mean that the answer to the question of this article is a definitive yes, that we will be obsolete should technology continue to evolve and if machine intelligence materializes? Not necessarily.
Wikipedia defines obsolescence as “the state of being which occurs when an object, service or practice is no longer wanted even though it may still be in good working order”. It also notes that “obsolescence frequently occurs because a replacement has become available that is superior in one or more aspects”.
So the availability of something superior is indeed one of the conditions for something to become obsolete, but not the only one. It seems everything hinges on whether something is wanted or not. It can very well happen that a thing that is by some standard inferior is by other standards superior, depending on individual values.
So the ironic answer to this question is that it really depends on your fellow humans whether you will become obsolete or not. Will they prefer the music you make to the music their intelligent machine friend makes in far less time and potentially far more entertaining (because it can, for example, read their mind and attune the music to their feelings)? But the most interesting question might be; what will you prefer?
It’s a tough question, but the answer kind of imposes itself. Even if you choose to value the inferior, but “human” things more you cannot escape the evidences of their inferiority. It is in our nature as human beings to be attracted to something that is better and greater. I therefore think that the only choice most of us will see is to improve ourselves too, and effectively compete with our own technology, or strive to evolve in tandem with it. It is after all what we created to improve our own abilities. This is just an extension of that process.
So the best way to answer the question of whether you and I will become obsolete in the face of evolving machines might be: only if we want to, only if we refuse to adapt and evolve along with the machines that we, or other humans, are developing.
When we look at the history of mankind, however, this doesn’t seem to be such a radical concept as it may at first appear to be. We today live a certain percentage of our lives looking at some kind of a computer screen, communicating with people online, something that probably seemed very radical, if even imaginable, just decades ago. This is, of course, just one of many examples of things we do today, and that we even depend on, that seemed radical or even dangerous in the past. As the technology evolved, we did indeed evolve with it.
Of course, there is often a sense that this particular transition is much more significant, scarier, and more dangerous than all the others before it. For the first time we are facing a possibility of becoming obsolete in the face of the very technology we created. It isn’t as bad as it sounds though, because as fast the change in recent times may be, it is still happening gradually. It’s just that we’ve became more efficient at incorporating the changes. As technology evolves faster we are perhaps evolving faster too, but we haven’t dropped any of the stages of transition that we were going through before.
There will be a time of hesitancy and fear followed by a time of educating ourselves about the real nature of what we are facing, and then a time of adaptation. We fear the most that which we don’t understand. Once we understand it we become better able at adapting in a way that preserves our core values and identities.
Concretely, musicians may realize two crucial things that may make us feel a lot better:
1. We are machines like everything else in nature. If other machines can create music that is no insult to our ability to create as well. All it is, really, is competition. A good artist, and a good human being, should not be afraid of such a challenge.
2. Technology that is so advanced that it could become alive and intelligent itself is likely advanced enough to merge with us without undesirable side-effects, a true upgrade. What seems scary now might look pretty harmless in the future. I bet that peacemakers, artificial hearts and even hearing aids looked scary some time ago, but have been adopted as life saving tools by many humans who can thank their these “intrusive” technologies for their life.
Once we get past the initial fears, we’ll be free to explore the endless possibilities that evolving with our technology poses. As machines become artists and scientists, we will become better artists and scientists than any human could have even dreamed possible.