When machines rule the world

17th Feb, 2014

Two issues have been drawing our attention (and creating in-house debate) in recent months: income inequality and the advance of technology, particularly in the area of robotics and trans-humanism (the melding of technology and the human body).

And it’s not only us who have been vexing on these issues. Davos this year had a session on growing inequality, while the march of machines into everyday lives has received much coverage from driverless cars to Google’s acquisition of specialist robotics firm Boston Dynamics (and of artificial intelligence company Deep Mind).

But, as Martin Wolf has suggested in the Financial Times, these two trends are linked and things might deteriorate further as ‘machines’ increasingly take over the jobs of workers and the benefits accrue, as in the industrial revolution, to the inventors and owners of intellectual capital rather than to the general population.

It doesn’t have to happen like this. In principle, more technology, increasingly automated manufacturing and service provision should result in not only increased national wealth but more leisure time too, and for all. This is surely the ultimate goal as suggested by Professor Jonathan Gershuny in his contribution to our time-use seminar.

But when asked whether it will happen, his simple answer was ‘no, of course not’! (Thanks to a lack of political will.)

Those who are the main beneficiaries of technological innovation shouldn’t necessarily be complacent though as ultimately they too might be superseded by thinking machines. As Wolf says – ‘In the distant future, thinking machines might even overwhelm our sense of ourselves’ – Artificial Intelligence experts believe this is certainly possible. We have sometimes raised smiles at conferences by referring to Professor Hans Morovec’s suggestion over 20 years ago (1992) that it could be that machines have already taken over but keep us alive in virtual reality as a memory of their creators:

 “Statistically speaking, it’s much more likely we’re living in a vast simulation than in the original version. To me, the whole concept of reality is rather absurd.”

Maybe it’s not such a laughing matter after all.


Please also see this informative presentation on what 3D printing has in store this year…