A frightening world of tomorrow
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - January 13, 2019 - 12:00am

Like most people, I have always believed that the future will mean a better world for humankind and technology  as it will bring vast improvements to the lives of people. Look at all the major technological changes in  our history – fire, wheel, agriculture, writing, printing press, steam engines, electricity, telephone, cars, planes – and we can see that humankind has prospered with each new technological revolution.

New drugs and medical technologies have allowed us to live longer and an agrarian revolution has allowed humankind to grow more food than was ever imaginable. In the 1990s, it seems that democracy – the belief that every human is a uniquely valuable individual whose free choice is the ultimate source of authority – would eventually prevail all over the world.

It is a bit shocking and disconcerting when we read respected authors who foretell a frightening world of the future. Yuval Noah Harari, who has a Ph.D in history from Oxford, whose first book was SAPIENS, explained how humankind came to rule the planet. It was translated into more than forty languages and became a bestseller in many  countries including the United States, UK, France, China, Korea and Germany.

He wrote that over the past century, humankind has managed to  do the impossible: turn the uncontrollable forces of nature – namely famine, plague and war – into manageable challenges. Today more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals combined.

In his new book HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari “...explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the 21st century, from overcoming death to creating artificial life. But the pursuit of these very goals may ultimately render most human beings superfluous. So where do we go from here? And how can we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? It will take more than one column to do justice to this book. Let me share some random thoughts of the author from his book. He says that in the 21st century ( Yes, this century!), the belief that every human being is a “uniquely valuable individual” might become obsolete because of three practical and probable developments:

• Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political systems will stop attaching much value to humans.

• The system will continue to find value in humans collectively but not in unique individuals.

• Value will be found in some unique individuals, but these will constitute a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population.

An example posed by the author: “...suppose two drones fight each other in the air. One drone cannot open fire without first receiving the go head from a human operator in some distant bunker. The other is fully autonomous. Which drone do you think will prevail?”

“Even if you care more about justice than victory, you should probably opt to replace your soldiers and pilots with autonomous robots and drones. Human soldiers murder, rape, and pillage and even when they try to behave themselves, they all too often kill civilians by mistake. Computers programmed with ethical algorithms could far more easily conform to the latest rulings of the internal criminal court.”

Harari goes on to describe how algorithms will replace drivers, travel agents, stock exchange traders, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, and so on.

The useless class

The most important question in the 21st century may well be what to do with all those people who may become useless in the job market. In effect, what will humans do once we have very highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?

Robots are already replacing humans in physical tasks; but, humans can still perform cognitive tasks better than machines. Yet what will happen once algorithms outperform humans in remembering, analysing and recognizing patterns?

Harari poses an intriguing question: “As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might be concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality. Today, millions of taxi drivers, bus drivers and truck drivers have significant economic and political clout...If their collective interests are threatened, they can unionize, go on strike, stage boycotts and create powerful voting blocs. However, once millions of human drivers are replaced by a single algorithm, all that wealth and power will be cornered by corporations that own the algorithms, and by a handful of billionaires who own the corporations.”

Even more frightening is the thought that if algorithms begin to make business decisions, then algorithms could end up managing and even owning these corporations.

The gap between the tiny elite and the middle class and the poor will become much greater. This will lead to social unrest. Harari writes: “If you tell a poor American in a Detroit slum that he has much better access to healthcare than his great-grandparents did a century ago it is unlikely to cheer him up. Indeed such talk would sound smug and condescending. ‘Why should I compare myself to 19th century factory workers or peasants?’ he would retort.’ I want to live like the rich people on television or at least like the folks in the suburbs.’”

So what to do with all those people who have become superfluous? Harari poses a frightening possibility: “Unlike in the 20th century, when the elites had a stake in fixing the problems of the poor because they were economically and militarily vital, in the 21st century, the most efficient strategy might be to let go of the “useless” third class carriages and dash forward with the first class only. (For example) Brazil might need a handful of upgraded superhumans far more than millions of healthy ordinary workers.”

Harari imagines a future world where mankind is split into a mass of useless humans and a small elite of upgraded superhumans or even a world in the hands of highly intelligent algorithms.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout on Jan. 26 (1:30 pm-3 pm; stand-alone sessions) at Fully Booked BGC. For details and registration, email writethingsph@gmail.com.

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Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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