Robot future prompts us to rediscover what it is to be human

Choices will need to be between a civilization that takes a few to the stars, and one that takes the many

We may not know it yet, but we face a tipping point in our development as a society, and the role of human capital in our economy. In short, we must choose between a civilization that takes a few to the stars, and one that takes the many.

The current economy is coming to an end — replaced by multiple technological revolutions, from the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ to the singularity, which, according to the likes of Silicon Valley futurist Ray Kurzweil, will see artificial intelligence outperform human intelligence by as early as 2029. Process-driven, codifiable labour will be automated and codified soon.

This leaves us with a deep choice. It could be argued that the current paranoia that has led to both the Brexit vote and Trump’s triumph stems from our concern for the growing redundancy of human labour. But do these trends mean the majority of citizens will become an economic burden in a jobless future? Or can we view the emancipation of humans from work as a chance to rediscover what it means to be human?

In the capitalist dream of radical automation, jobs are finite and declining in quantity and quality. Humans are regarded as an expense, a liability on future wealth. In this scenario, many of us become a societal cost to be managed, perhaps facilitated by a universal basic income. But an alternative reality is possible, in which humans are not an overhead on the balance sheet.

This is a future that requires us to embrace the relatively infinite possibility of human beings, as opposed to our limited capacity to manage process. Contrary to Kurzweil’s opinion, according to some estimates, we are 40 years from the point where AI could truly become comparable to humans. And that means we are currently blessed with almost nine billion human beings who are significantly more impressive than any machine yet created.

Are we genuinely unlocking the full capacity of all people? Or are we obsessed with unlocking the economic dreams of the few — and thereby subordinating the many to be, at best, ‘bad robots’? The solution to this challenge cannot be a mere patching over — a redistribution from the few to the many, which sustains unequal relationships of dependency and patronage.

Instead, the answer is a human revolution focused on unlocking the capacity of all our humanity. This is a revolution accelerated by radical automation and AI but focused on re-gearing our societies — releasing the full creative, collaborative craft and caring capacities of our citizens.

There are many tasks we will need to undertake as part of this shift. We will need to radically transform educational and human development institutions. We must democratise creativity, voice and expression to support the shared discovery of what it means to be human. We should establish, in the UK, a sovereign wealth fund focused on open-source automation of our towns and cities and the democratisation of the benefits of automation. And we must redefine our macroeconomic rules, such as public balance sheets and deficit analysis, to take account of our unlocking of citizens’ potential.

Big government is a problem in this scenario, but a big state is not. We can invent distributed and decentralised models of agency rather than aggregations of central power in parliament.

We cannot policy edit our way to this future, because it does not require mere tweaks, but systemic societal reforms. But the good news is that humanity is not redundant. In fact, we are free — to discover, to mine the future and to care, create and dream.

This article was first published as “We shouldn’t fear the robot revolution — it has given us the opportunity to rediscover what it means to be human” in the Autumn 2017 edition of CIPD’s Work. magazine.

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