Between national news and recent personal experiences, I believe we are on the verge of one or more technical apocalypse. This could come two possible forms:
Either, technology advances to the point that it bypasses the need for humanity, or we grow more and more dependent on tech and internet connectivity and then a series of events causes the whole infrastructure to collapse.
We could also see first one and then the other. I see both of these as very real possibilities, though I can’t say how likely. I just want to briefly explain what we are up against.
The Vulnerability of Tech
On Christmas, my website vanished. The culprit seems to be a corrupt zone file which is used to tell the internet where my website is located. I got the site finally back up and then it vanished again due to extremely high traffic on the server. Not sure if that high traffic was directed at my site or the 30 other sites on the same server, but it took a move to a different server to get the site back up.
Two seemingly unrelated incidents in a week is suspicious, or just really bad luck. It is causing me to rethink my web strategies for the future, wondering if there is a better less vulnerable way to do what I do.
But that is just my sad story. How about the intentional takedown of both XBOX Live and PSN on Christmas Day causing much havoc in many households as many new games and consoles could not be played. Before that we all witnessed our first real cyber war between Sony and North Korea. Before that the very organization in charge of internet infrastructure was hacked. Before that was the #gamergate trolls and their malicious tricks directed against female gamers and their supporters. Before that hackers broke into private accounts of female celebrities posting private pictures. These are just the headlines in the last 4 months.
We are looking at a new form of warfare / terrorism that is only going to get more common. All tech is seemingly vulnerable. Even the supposedly anonymous and untouchable corners of the web have proven vulnerable in recent weeks.
Our dependence on internet connected tech is only going to get larger in the near future, which is going to make such actions more damaging.
The Vulnerability of Human Labor
We are at a point technologically where artificial intelligence, a sci-fi dream as long as I can remember, is becoming a reality. This year we saw a chatbot pass the Turing Test, cars that can drive themselves are here as well. Those in the know say that the real innovation is machines learning themselves, which is becoming more real everyday.
From someone who studied this stuff for years this is all very exciting, but the big dark cloud behind the silver lining is what is motivating these developments: companies want to replace human laborers with robots. When cars (and trucks and busses) that drive themselves prove to be cheaper and more reliable than human drivers, what happens to the 3 million people in the US that make a living as drivers? Most likely their jobs disappear.
That’s just one example, hundreds of service occupations are vulnerable to automation in the near future. Because we have grown dependent on service jobs here in the US, what is the future of employment?
And where is this all going to go? We have intelligent systems being developed to read through reams of legal documents to help lawyers with cases, we also have intelligent systems being developed to write reams of legal documents. Eventually we are going to cut out the middleman and let all the intelligent systems handle all the legal decision making.
Then what? A “small claims court” app where you can file a claim and have a judgement in minutes messaged to your phone? So much for the need for lawyers.
Demand for doctors is likely to be in decline as well for similar reasons. Neither will disappear completely, but job security will not be what it once was.
There will always be a demand for labor, but if these efforts to automate are successful, the demand is destined to go down, even while the human population continues to rise. How do we create a society where an increasingly large segment of the population is unemployable. What kind of economy is possible if most of the population can’t afford anything?
Maybe we will build an intelligent system to micromanage a stable economy adjusting taxes and welfare automatically to keep the economy healthy for all.
Sounds like a good idea, until the the intelligent economic manager decides there are just too many damn humans to support (which is already true) and figures out a way to get rid of some.
The Clash of Two Futures
Foretelling the future is damn near impossible. I cannot say how much of either of these visions of apocalyptic futures are likely to be true, but I can guarantee both will happen to some degree.
The need for drivers will drop with driverless cars, that is inevitable. It is also inevitable that some will try to prove their vulnerability by purposely causing automated cars to crash, possibly in retaliation for lost jobs.
Hacking intelligent systems is no doubt going to happen, and exploitation of vulnerabilities will result in an intelligent systems arms race. Eventually hackers will build intelligent systems to ruin and destroy other intelligent systems, to what effect it is too abstract to see.