Contrasts have a way of making things clear.
For example: this week television news and the Internet have been full of demonstrations, riots, fires after yet another American black man died in police custody. The drama builds on a question: will the people of Baltimore defy the curfew imposed on them? Or will they pour into the mean streets where whole blocks are boarded up, abandoned, burnt to cinders and where large grocery store chains fear to tread, to confront the massed power of the National Guard and police? Some parts of Baltimore look like some parts of Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, all cities that rose with the Industrial Revolution but have been rusting out since it moved offshore to China and beyond. People live in these places, but do not dwell.
But at the same time, my local newspaper ran a Dow Jones news wire story by Eliot Brown about the opposite kind of problem on the other side of the continent. In Silicon Valley where Google and Facebook and all the wannabebillionaires dwell, there is no rust. In Silicon Valley they deal in new money, and in dynamic—smart-- information systems that learn and remember everything you say, type, read. These machines know everyone you know, everywhere you go, and everything you buy. There are no black men dying in police custody in Silicon Valley, no riots in the streets, though its denizens have built a global infrastructure for an unimaginably efficient police state. Amazingly, they have grown unimaginably rich by enticing us all to use it, and therefore snitch on ourselves. In Silicon Valley, where most of the biggest companies are less than twenty years old, the problem is that there is no more land available for office towers. Office rents are higher than in Manhattan. Google is talking about building a barracks on its campus for its interns to cut the commute time. Companies are petitioning local politicians to throw their planning rules out the window. If business expansion ruins all the middle class neighborhoods…well, that’s business.
Which is why, when I heard a radio promo for a man who says that we are in the midst of the biggest upheaval since the Industrial Revolution, I found myself saying out loud: if only.
In fact, we are living in a period much more disruptive than the Industrial Revolution which worked out over a period of two hundred years, giving human societies time to adapt and develop democratic institutions that could hold the worst excesses in check.
I call our time the Smarts Era. It is so much more transformational than the Industrial Revolution (and yet also so much less). Our smart machines have become intimately enmeshed with our daily lives almost overnight. The humans who ran the assembly lines of yore are being replaced by smart robots that learn on the job (or by extremely poor people in the Third World willing to toil for $3 a day). Soon there will be no assembly lines at all as 3D printer make anything, as you like it, when you want it. The speed of this change makes the Industrial Revolution look as slow as a camel plodding across the Empty Quarter. It’s only sixty-five years since Alan Turing published his prediction that in fifty years, we’d have an artificial intelligence that can fool us into thinking it’s a human. In order to do it, we had to figure out how intelligence works in everything from slime molds to humans, and how it can be instantiated in computers and machines. My new book, SMARTS tells that story. It is important to point out that this book has been brought to you by smart technologies too-- systems that can print and bind a book without human intervention, or the bother of warehouses, or the people who once worked in them.
But it is not just this speed that makes this era unlike the Industrial Revolution. A revolution means an abrupt shift in human affairs, usually involving the bloody overthrow of whoever happens to be in power. There was plenty of that throughout the Industrial Revolution. But rather than overthrowing the powerful, the Smarts Era has made the already powerful almost impregnable. The newly- minted Silicon Valley billionaires have been adopting the methods of their Big Oil Billionaire predecessors. They have been buying up all the political talent there is, supporting, grooming and shaping their arguments in nicely funded think tanks, hiring fleets of government relations specialists to lobby their hirelings for whatever they need. Soon billionaires will, in effect, own the major democratic institutions of the western world.
It is no accident that there are so few large public rallies during elections where politicians must answer unruly crowds. The innovations of the Smarts Era permit carefully controlled events where only friendlies are welcome and their selfies get the right message out. Why would any politician submit to tough interviews with actual journalists when citizens with smart cell phones can be of service? These changes in political behavior have nothing to do with corruption, the buying of votes, or the kind of intimidation that was a matter of course in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The Smarts Era has no need of a Tammany Hall. Smart machines track voters using clever algorithms applied to masses of data: our individual hopes and fears can be directly addressed through precisely targeted robocalls, instagram posts, flipagrams, and tweets.
Though we stand at the edge of the greatest expansion of knowledge in human history, we are also on the verge of replacing human intelligence with intelligent machines. As SMARTS makes clear, not very far into the future, young lawyers, young writers, young surgeons, young engineers will no longer be needed. There will be smarts systems better able to perform their functions. Those who will benefit the most from the rise of these Machine Nerds will be those who own the companies bringing them to market. No need to own the means of production if you own the means of accumulating big data.
There is just one little problem. What kind of economy will result? How many jobs can be taken by machines before our economies crash and burn?
It is well known that long-term joblessness and poverty lead to very poor health outcomes, regardless of whether medical care is paid for by the State. The poor die much younger than the wealthy. As the best jobs disappear, what of our unhappy children? If their circumstances become sufficiently straightened, they may not want to live as long as their grandparents did.
Billionaires of course are not like other people. When you own control of the company, nobody fires you even if a computer could do it better. Some billionaires in Silicon Valley would like to live forever. Some have been investing in technologies to radically extend human life—their lives--up to and including immortality.
Ray Kurzweil, for example, is in charge of Google’s Brain project. He is trying to back-engineer how human brains work so he can upload his own memories and consciousness into a very smart machine. Why? So he can live forever. He thinks he’s close.
Read all about it in SMARTS. And then help figure out what we can do about it.