THE FOURTH AGE: Prologue

Robots. Jobs. Automation. Artificial intelligence. Conscious computers. Superintelligence. Abundance. A jobless future. “Useless” humans. The end of scarcity. The end of work. Creative computers. Robot overlords. Unlimited wealth. A permanent underclass.

These words and concepts probably show up in your news feed of choice literally every single day. Sometimes the narratives are positive, full of hope for the future. Other times they are fearful and dystopian. And that stark dichotomy of outlooks is oddly puzzling.  The experts on these various topics, all intelligent and informed people, tell stories of the future that are not just a little different but instead are dramatically and diametrically opposed to each other. Why do Elon Musk, Steven Hawking, and Bill Gates fear AI and express concern that it may be a threat to our very survival in the near future? And yet, why do an equally illustrious group including Mark Zuckerberg, Andrew Ng, and Oren Etzioni find this viewpoint so farfetched as to be hardly even worth a rebuttal?  Zuckerberg goes so far as to call those who peddle doomsday scenarios “pretty irresponsible” while Andrew Ng says that such concerns about AI are like worrying about “overpopulation on Mars.” After Elon Musk was quoted as saying, “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization,” Pedro Domingos, a leading AI researcher and author, tweeted, “One word: Sigh.” Each group is as confident in their position as they are scornful of the other side.

With robots and automation, the situation is the same.  The experts couldn’t be further apart. Some say all jobs will be lost to automation, or at the very least we are about to enter a permanent Great Depression where one part of the workforce will not be able to compete with robotic labor while the other part will live lavish lives of plenty with their high-tech futuristic jobs. Others roll their eyes at these concerns and point automation’s long track record of raising workers’ productivity and wages and speculate that a bigger problem will be a shortage of human laborers. While fistfights are uncommon between these groups, there is condescending invective aplenty.

Finally, when considering the question of whether computers will become conscious and therefore alive, the experts couldn’t disagree more. Some believe that it’s an obvious fact that computers can be conscious, thus any other position is just silly superstition. Others emphatically disagree, saying that computers and living creatures are two very different things and that idea of a “living machine” is a contradiction in terms.

To those who follow all of this debate, the net of all of this is confusion and frustration. Many throw their hands up and surrender to the cacophony of competing opinions and conclude if the people at the forefront of these technologies cannot agree on what will happen, then what hope do they have? As such, people begin to view the future with fear and trepidation, concluding that these overwhelming questions must be inherently unanswerable.

Is there a path out of this? I think so. It begins when we realize that these experts disagree not because they know different things, but because they believe different things.

For instance, those who predict we will make conscious computers don’t come to that conclusion because they know something about consciousness that others don’t, but because they believe something very basic: that humans are fundamentally machines. If humans are machines, it stands to reason that we can eventually build a mechanical human. On the other hand, those who think machines will never achieve consciousness often hold that view because they aren’t convinced we are purely mechanical beings.

So that is what this book is about: Deconstructing the beliefs that undergird the various views on robots, jobs, AI, consciousness, and life. My goal is to be your guide through these thorny issues, dissecting all of the assumptions that form the opinions that these experts so passionately and confidently avow.

Thus, this book is not about what I think about these issues. While I make no special effort to hide my beliefs, they are of very little importance to how you, the reader, work your way through this book. My goal is for you to finish this book with a thorough understanding of where your beliefs lead you on these questions. Then, when you hear some Silicon Valley titan or distinguished professor or a Nobel Laurate make a confident claim about robots or jobs or AI, you will instantly understand the beliefs that undergird their statements.

Where does a journey like this begin? By necessity, far in the past, as far back as the invention of language. The questions we will grapple with in this book aren’t about transistors and neurons and algorithms and such. They are about the nature of reality, humanity, and mind. The confusion happens when we begin with “What jobs will robots take from humans?” instead of “What are humans?” Until we answer that second question, we can’t meaningfully address the first one.

So I invite you to join me on a walk through 100,000 years of human history, discussing big questions along the way, and exploring the future to come.  This book is a journey. Thank you for taking it with me.

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