On the mechanisation of thought

The industrial revolution mechanised physical labour. In 200 years that saw unprecedented innovation, we went from using machines to grind flour to assemble phones. But the holy grail of machanisation remains: thought.

As mechanisation relieves workers from manual labour, the human workforce moves towards more sophisticated work. Sophisticated work takes time to learn; since the industrial revolution, the age at which we become a net contributor to the economy has steadily increased. The natural conclusion of this needs careful consideration. If I’m right, this trend will continue and people’s lives will fundamentally change when we lose the competitive advantage we have always had over machines – our intelligence.

The inflection point comes when there is no higher level of sophistication that the workforce can competitively move to. That is, when most jobs that produce things that people are willing to pay for are performed better or cheaper by machines (computers and robots) than people. Note that we’ll get to this point long before we have artificial general intelligence. This is a huge deal. What jobs will still be done by people? How will resources be (re)distributed? What role will politics play? How will society transition to a new steady state? How will people find happiness? This should be the topic for economists and political thinkers today, but I see almost no discussion of it.

I can think of two reasons why this is not widely debated: people think it won’t happen in their lifetime or people want to avoid thinking about uncomfortable things.

The latter reason is likely more common, but ignoring a problem does not make it disappear. If people thought about it they would realise that mass-unemployment (coupled with increased productivity) is likely to happen in our lifetime. It might be difficult (remember the AI over-optimism in the 80’s?), but there are no fundamental barriers to mechanising much of what we are willing to pay for with faux-intelligent computers within decades; in the end, the brain is a kind of computer.

We can argue about the timeline. I think serious arguments putting it more than 100 years into the future will be rare; I would argue for it to take less than half a century and probably significantly less. The key is that innovation increases the sophistication of the tools we use to push innovation further, making the trend exponential (it’s not quite that simple, but it’s roughly right). Timing, however, is not the point. The point is that we’ll need to deal with it, bar a catastrophic event.

The solution is in theory simple: redistribution in the form of a citizen salary (and I say that despite libertarian leanings). Politically this should be doable – widely established practices like unemployment benefits, social security, and state-funded healthcare already gives something for nothing. In practice, it might not be so simple.