We're completely fucked
Say goodbye to your tech job (and most other white collar work)
Ever since ChatGPT 3 made its debut, there has been alarmism about AI taking over the world mixed with great joy at how “cool” AI is. So hooray!
Now, ChatGPT 4 is already out and vastly improved. And the alarums are increasing.
On the one side you have those who say that this will make our work so much easier. And it will, of course. On the other side you have those who say that it will take away our jobs. And of course it will.
A third group think it’s Terminator time and AI will “decide” that it is better off without humans and kill us all (or enslave us). Let’s deal with this one first.
The Terminator Scenario
It astonishes me how often I have to explain this to people but the media are against me. They just can’t stop lying about it. So let’s get something clear:
Machines don’t think.
They don’t think now and they are unlikely ever to “think”. But boy do we like to anthropomorphize. Just as our idea of God has all the flaws of human beings, just writ larger, so we project human foibles onto machines. We think that they get jealous, are easily angered, feel resentment. Maybe they even love us.
So what do machines really do? They do what we program them to do. So that means that if machines do take over and start killing all the humans, then it will be because that’s what we programmed them to do.
And don’t think that’s not a possibility. In truth, it is likely. The first thing humans do with any new technology is build weapons. Every. Single. Time.
Then whoopsie! Wow. No one could have anticipated that horrific outcome.
Every advance in medicine immediately results in an advance in biological weapons (or genetic weapons). Every advance in chemistry results in new and more potent chemical weapons. Every advance in physics results in new, ever more lethal bombs, missiles, rockets, laser beams.
Even those products that you don’t recognize as weapons — smart phones, social media, television and streaming — are absolutely weapons. The carnage is everywhere plain to see.
Similarly, tech advances have rapidly created a global surveillance state, the American carceral state, the shocking maldistribution of wealth, a drugged and passive population too busy staring at their phones to react intelligently or empathetically, and worse. Far worse.
Paul Virilio spoke of the “integral accident”. He said: you cannot invent the railway without also inventing the derailment. You don’t get one without the other.
I take some issue with Mr. Virilio. I don’t think that there is anything accidental about it. I think that the inventors know quite well that there will be a horrific downside to every technological advance, but they are so greedy for the benefits, that they lie about and dismiss or downplay the detriments.
They don’t mind risking your life for their gain.
Think I’m exaggerating? Then put this in your pipe and smoke it:
Edward Teller, the “father” of the atomic bomb, theorized that the explosion of one could ignite the Earth’s atmosphere killing all life on Earth. There was enough concern that they conducted a six month study and concluded that it was very “unlikely”.
It’s the stakes, stupid
I regularly try to explain this to people but most humans are remarkably unable to grok it. I think that the moment you say anything that suggests “math”, a significant portion of humanity simply stops listening. The brain slips into neutral.
When we talk about risk, many people get bogged down in the odds. For example, in the scenario above, what the other scientists were saying to Teller was that the odds that the atmosphere would ignite and destroy all life on Earth were very low.
But risk also involves the stakes. What were the stakes above? Were they high? Well, only if you consider the extinction of all life on Earth to be an issue.
If I put a piece of wood between two blocks a meter off the ground and offer you $100 to walk across it, you’d almost certainly do it. Even if it was difficult and the odds were that you’d fail. After all, the stakes are low. You might, might, sprain an ankle if you fell.
But put that same piece of wood between two fifty-story buildings where a fall means certain death, and would you still take the risk? I very much doubt it.
If not, then that means that you do understand the importance of stakes.
So think about this now: those men went ahead with their explosion even though the stakes were the end of all life on Earth. Just the incredible arrogance of such men, to think that they had the right to take that risk with the lives of every living thing on the planet, is mind-boggling.
I’d like to invent a time machine just so I could go back and beat them senseless with a big stick while shouting, “What were you thinking? What were you thinking?”
Those men didn’t disappear with the end of the Manhattan Project. The world is full of men (and some women) who arrogate the “right” to themselves to take enormous risks with the fate of all life on Earth in the balance. It happens with increasing frequency.
Do you really think that they’re being careful with AI and robots and genetics and the rest? If so, do you have that $100,000 you owe me? Yeah, remember? You promised you’d pay it back.
First they came for the looms
The first wave of industrialization destroyed whole craft industries. Millions were displaced and millions of lives ruined, but no one else cared because, hey, cool new shit real cheap!
It took unions and a long and bloody battle (and two world wars and a depression) to raise the general standard of living back to something people could accept.
Then profits began to flag and the great Neo-liberal crusade began. As productivity climbed because of improving technology and work practices, wages were held stagnant and cheap credit was substituted. As a result, the monetary benefits accrued to a small class of parasites. Everyone else went into debt.
But that wasn’t enough, so soon the laws were changed and industry moved to low-wage countries where compromised governments prevented unionization and there were no laws to protect workers and the environment.
Industrial workers in the West who’d had it good since the end of WWII were outraged, but the unions were mostly gone by that point or corrupted — the moment the danger passes people go back to sleep — so off the good blue collar jobs went.
The promise was that we’d “retrain” people for the new “information economy”, but what was really happening was the financialization of Western economies, especially that of the US. Casino capitalism anyone? How’s that working out? Can you say “SVB”?
Meanwhile, the great retraining fizzled and the trend toward service jobs at a fraction of former wages began. McDonald’s, Walmart, Amazon warehouses. Sweet, eh? Do you want fries with your burger?
But again, no one cared (except the victims) because iPhones! Social media! Cheap big screen TVs! Yes, the “proletariat” was bought off again with trinkets. Isn’t this fun?
Of course, the white collar jobs were somewhat protected. There were, in the US, the infamous H-1B visas whereby thousands of mostly Indians willing to work for much less than white Americans came to the US and “stole” white Americans’ jobs. But all the wailing and gnashing of teeth mostly came to naught because… trinkets!
Who needs humans anyway?
With the advent of “AI” (truly, a misnomer — no “intelligence” is involved unless you mean that in the same way the military does, cough, cough), white collar workers can be replaced just as easily as the blue collar workers they so eagerly sold out.
Where’s Ross Perot when you really need him? Can you say “giant sucking sound”?
Naysayers will claim that AI — read ChatGPT and the like — isn’t good enough yet. Key word: yet.
But they are wrong. Yes it is. It’s more than good enough.
The naysayers cheat by comparing ChatGPT to Faulkner, Picasso, Einstein. But guess what! How many of us are Faulkner, Picasso, or Einstein? Exactly three of us, I think, and all dead.
The sad truth is that the vast majority of human beings are utterly mediocre. And how could it be otherwise? Mediocre simply means average, so it is a mathematical certainty. Whoops. Put your brain back in gear.
And that’s if we use a Bell curve.
More likely, competence follows the Pareto Principle, which means 20% have most of the smarts and 80% are mostly drudges. And ChatGPT is already better (and much, much faster and cheaper) than all of that 80%.
If they keep the training reasonably current — and you can bet “they” will — then there is no reason that ChatGPT/etc. cannot already replace most clerical workers, paralegals, accountants, journalists, graphic designers, teachers, etc. Even most doctors, lawyers, managers, and more. (Nurses tend to be hands on, so they’ll be around a bit longer, but it will still be a shit job, pun intended.)
At most we have a few years. Logistics, am I right?
AI and a robot can already replace the best surgeons. Would you rather have your brain surgery done by a machine that has an error rate of 0.00001% or a surgeon who has an error rate of 0.1% or even 1%? That’s a no-brainer (pun intended).
We could’ve been contenders
So does this have to be the end? Are we fated to fighting over crumbs in an increasingly hostile and toxic environment wracked by war and poverty while a small cadre of über-parasites and their robot minions and human sex slaves live in domed luxury on their private islands and walled estates? Or can we pull this out somehow? Could the yeasayers be right?
Well, it is theoretically possible. We could use this amazing technology to benefit all life on Earth, ensuring that all of humanity has good, nutritional food; superb healthcare; safe, secure, and private housing; education; leisure time; and much more; all free of charge while “AI” and robots do all the hard work.
And if we stopped competing and started cooperating, put aside our differences, shared everything equally, took only what we really needed, left things better than we found them, and, essentially, loved each other, then yes! We could create a paradise on Earth.
As one of my professors used to say:
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.
As far back as 1981 — was anyone even alive back then? — Buckminster Fuller pointed out a simple truth:
It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a 'higher standard of living than any have ever known.' It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable as mandated by survival.
So we could do that. But forty-two years later (I’ve seen that number before somewhere), things are actually much worse. Some whiny, killjoy scientists say we’re now closer to midnight than ever before.
Not sure what happens at midnight, but it can’t be good. Think Cinderella.
But we won’t make things better. We’ll make them much worse.
What is my evidence for this? Hmm. Only the entire history of humanity on Earth. Don’t believe me? Look for yourself. I’ll wait.
We keep trying to solve our problems with more powerful technology: Nuclear power. Genetic manipulation. Robotics and AI. But the problem we have is not a lack of technology, it’s too much and too powerful technology.
Our problem is moral and spiritual. We are infants, and we adamantly refuse to grow up. And so all these “great” technologies are nothing more than handguns in the hands of toddlers. This will not end well. Ask an American.
The tiny group of parasites at the top — don’t call them an “elite” — will suck up every possible “benefit” of this technology, and the rest of us — 99.99999% of humanity and all the other fauna (and flora) — will pay the price for it.
Same as it ever was. You heard it here first.