When will humans change?

In the words of Frederik Pohl, my job as a science fiction author is, “to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

I’m sure we all have mixed feelings about the future of robotics and artificial intelligence.  I certainly do and it’s such a broad subject that it’s no surprise emerging technologies and science generates big questions. What human activity we value and what it means to be human might not be new questions, but this could be the moment to assess them again.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending even more time than usual thinking and reading about robots and artificial intelligence. I’ve outlined some brief thoughts below, but there’s way too much to put into a short blog post like this and others have written whole books about it, not least Max Tegmark in his book Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

Alongside all this reading I’m running a survey to find out what inspires and scares people about robots and artificial intelligence and it’s been very interesting to read the responses. They are varied, but quite a lot worry about humans being replaced by machines, either in the workplace or being wiped out completely. On a positive note there’s a lot of focus on the benefits of robots going to places that are dangerous or hard to reach – think nuclear accidents or surgery deep inside the human body.

Whatever happens, we will change. Won’t we?

What we choose to automate could shift what we value, for example paying decent wages for work that is predominantly about human contact such as aspects of care – child care, health care and so on. If we truly shift what we consider important as human activity then we’ll need to restructure society, probably to encompass more leisure time and possibly to live alongside new forms of intelligence. This may be some time in the future, but at the very least we should agree now who decides how that happens and what it looks like.

Then there are the mega-questions. What is consciousness? Should we reconsider how we treat animals in the light of these new entities and their moral value? What is so bad about humans that machines might want to wipe us out and should we change ourselves to avoid it? How might human nature change as a result of no longer being the most intelligent on the planet?

These are big important questions and some are more pressing than others. Let’s make sure we focus in on the right place because, as I’m fond of saying, “the future is ours and it’s up for grabs.”  

I’ll be pondering some of this stuff from a science fiction author’s point of view at the Bradford Literary Festival on 9 July so if you’re in the area, please come along and we can ponder together.


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