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Dystopia or Utopia? The Autonomous Revolution

By Heidi Hackford | March 04, 2020

"Our Brave New Social Networking world looks less open and connected everyday—and more and more like the dystopian surveillance states of Orwell and Huxley."

The Autonomous Revolution

"It can be a world with a universally high standard of living, longer lifespans, robots that will free us from drudgery, safer communities, and access to a fascinating and exciting virtual universe."

The Autonomous Revolution

For only the third time in human history, civilization is undergoing epic cultural transformation. As artificial intelligence and virtual environments change life as we know it—and take our jobs—will we end up better or worse off? Will we “work” only a few hours a week, free to pursue our dreams in a world of abundance? Or, will people become as devalued as the concept of work itself, humanity hijacked by AI that turns us into living robots?

At CHM on February 24, authors Bill Davidow and Mike Malone discussed these issues and other insights from their newest book, The Autonomous Revolution: Reclaiming the Future We’ve Sold to Machines, with Pulitzer Prize–winning Stanford historian David Kennedy. Key to their discussion is the concept of societal “phase change,” where institutions like government, economics, science, and religion are changing form, obeying different rules, using different methods, and seeming to do so with increasing speed and dysfunction. 

This is a marked contrast to the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past, disputing the idea that we are experiencing the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” just another phase in an ongoing trend. Davidow and Malone insist that phase change is much more disruptive and that humanity is in trouble if we think we can find solutions in variations on the old rules because those rules no longer apply.

Panelists discuss the nature of change in the autonomous revolution.

The End of the "Good Job"

One of the greatest concerns about rapid advances in artificial intelligence is that it will displace human workers. Machines replaced muscle power in the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, but today AI is actually replacing human intelligence and even years of experience and training. Algorithms are now better than radiologists at detecting medical conditions, for example. 

AI is also transforming the way we process information and turning what used to be physical relationships and physical business locations, such as baseball games and banking, into virtual experiences on an app. In the past, the wages people earned from work were a way to distribute wealth. How will social systems that regard people who receive public assistance as “lazy” respond when most of the population does not work? The era of the Protestant Work Ethic and the “good job” is coming to an end.

Economists Don’t Have a Clue

Even as people’s work becomes more productive and efficient they can’t keep up with AI, which is so exponentially more productive it drives down labor costs to the point where a human has, in the words of Davidow and Malone, “zero economic value.” Malone describes how his own career in media has changed over his lifetime, with the work that journalists have done turned over increasingly to machines.

Mike Malone describes how AI has changed the media industry.

Not only has AI pushed aside journalists, but it’s sidelining financial services advisors as well, with algorithms providing better returns at substantially higher levels than humans. These types of situations are becoming more and more common and they are changing basic economic rules. Productivity increases no longer power economic expansion at the same time that the costs of necessities, like healthcare and housing, are rising. Income inequality is now at historic highs. People are worried that they and their children will experience ever greater declines in their quality of life. But that’s not the only cause for concern in the autonomous revolution.

The Price of Free Speech

Bill Davidow argues that free speech has become too expensive for society. He believes that the low cost of today’s one-to-many communication has made platforms like Facebook a “mass productivity tool for anti-social behavior.” Indeed, the FANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) have created a “pernicious model” with an anti-entrepreneur culture. Their anti-competitive practices are absorbing or shutting down new businesses with the potential to create new jobs. And, their products, by programming our brains and using our data to serve their bottom line, are fundamentally anti-democratic as well.

Bill Davidow and Mike Malone explore how data collection practices undermine democracy.

Though they joke that their book seems to suggest a very dystopian vision for the future, Davidow and Malone insist they’re optimistic that human ingenuity will get us through this revolution just as it did the socio-cultural transformations of the two previous ones. On the other side of the autonomous revolution, they believe, will be unprecedented abundance, longer lives, better health, and more accessible education. 

However, the authors also note that the working class, whose jobs have been eroded by machines for longer than white collar workers, is experiencing a downward slide in life expectancy for the first time in history. Suicide rates among men in this group suggest we should not be too optimistic that we’ll get through this period without the violence and disruption that bedeviled earlier generations. The toxic nature of our political sphere and our increasing mistrust of our fellow humans does not bode well for our ability to connect with each other more than the devices we’re so attached to.

Will we be staring myopically down at our screens while the energy needed to power them drowns cities, expands deserts, and depletes natural resources? Or will we find a way to put our devices down, look a stranger in the eye, and work together to ensure that autonomous machines fulfill the promise of a more just and sustainable world?

The future of humanity ultimately lies with us.

Watch the Full Conversation

“The Autonomous Revolution,” authors Bill Davidow and Mike Malone in conversation with historian and professor David Kennedy, February 25, 2020.

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About The Author

Heidi Hackford is the content and curriculum director for the Exponential Center at the Computer History Museum. She is responsible for leading the development of educational materials focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Heidi previously worked at Monticello, where she edited Thomas Jefferson’s family letters. At the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, she established a digital archive and conducted teacher workshops on incorporating digital history resources in the classroom. After moving to Silicon Valley, Heidi directed the start-up of a new foundation promoting wilderness conservation through art.

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