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2040, from human enhancement to human … obsolescence?

Internet, artificial intelligence, robotics: 2040, from human enhancement to human … obsolescence?

artificial intelligence

This article was first published in the GEAB No 103 / March 2016. 

The political anticipation method applied by the GEAB reveals that long-term trends are strong undercurrents on which short-term trends usually evolve. So, when our team commits to primarily anticipate phases of the crisis on the horizon in several years, it takes into serious consideration these structural macro-trends.

For example, the tenable dethronement of oil as the ultra-dominant energy source is the macro-trend which allowed us to anticipate its short-term price collapse and its medium-term non-recovery. Another example: the strength of the Eurozone in the heart of a faltering EU is the long-term trend that supported our belief that Greece would not leave the Eurozone. To give a third example, our conclusion on the structural nature of deflation comes from our recognition of the revolution of internet-induced production methods and the extensive process of disintermediation.

Today, we are offering our readers some guidelines for reflection on the technological revolution we are all currently experiencing and which, far from being completed, is undergoing new accelerated phases. Internet, artificial intelligence, robotics… all lead to one fundamental trend almost absent from the political debate despite its potential social impact. These transformations (the premises of which we already feel) will produce their full effect after one or two decades, so there is still time to rationally analyze their consequences, without showing complete panic in regard to their extreme evolutionary perspectives.

Therefore, we will not do a common anticipation exercise this time, but rather a reflection, meant to pave the way for necessary and very urgent political debates. In this light, our purpose may seem challenging, but sometimes a shock is necessary to initiate talks. In fact, here we only try to identify the probable or inevitable changes, the opportunities they represent or the threats they pose to our society[1]. As we shall see, these trends are no more than the logical consequence of the internetisation and human interconnection, leading naturally to the next stage of the “enhanced man” and running the risk (if we are not careful enough) of changing him into an “obsolete man”.

An already shaken social model

We have already discussed this several times, especially in the GEAB 100 (December, 2015) during our retrospective when we spoke about the multi-sector causes of the current crisis: the impact of the internet on our society is huge and totally underestimated by society’s considered “great pedagogues”, the media and the politicians. This is definitely a fundamental transformation of all prior economic and social models, as we were saying last December:

“It started slowly, with computerization, automation and robotics. Nobody seemed to react when an entire pole of the traditional economy disappeared, and this was followed by the digital economy, the “virtual” one, then by that of sharing, the solidary economy, the trade, the barter. All this was made possible, on a large scale, thanks to the Internet. […]

“Fewer intermediaries, repetitive work performed now by robots, streamlining through computer skills, a supportive and collaborative economy out of traditional circuits, fewer resources used thanks to the virtual economy: it’s no surprise that models based on growth and labour are no longer so valuable[2]…”

The role of anticipation is to study the future of this trend, and what we actually see is a long and continuous acceleration. The question is whether at the end of the road there is a wall, a precipice, a mountain or a new dimension…

Go, go, go!

“We were not expecting it for the next 10 years[3]“. This possibly is the phrase that comes up most often after the success of the AlphaGo software made by Google, when facing Europe’s champion of Go, Fan Hui, and defeating him 5 to 0 in October 2015. This was actually the first time that software beat a Go professional player, in a much more difficult game for computers than chess (where the best humans are soundly defeated now by mere smartphone applications).

We should admit that the aforementioned success is not comparable to IBM’s Deep Blue, which caused a stir in 1997 by defeating Garry Kasparov in chess. While Deep Blue executed an algorithm exclusively dedicated to chess, with an unbeatable computing power[4], AlphaGo uses artificial intelligence methods while learning from great masters’ matches. In other words, this software found its own way to play, while Deep Blue was strictly encoded by humans. Although Google has obviously made a phenomenally powerful machine (like IBM in its time), there is a fundamental difference: the machine is beginning to be “smart”, to a certain extent. Moreover, in return, these evolutions will undoubtedly be able to fuel the current developments in the artificial intelligence sector.

In this respect, it is of great (and astonishing) importance to see to what extent AlphaGo has “progressed” between October 2015 and March 2016. After its victory in October against a “second class[5]” champion, commentators agreed that these matches could have easily been won by better players. However, during its first three games[6] between March 9 and 12 against Lee Sedol (considered to be one of the best players in the world), the machine has beaten the human three times. If an analogy is made to human players, it would be like Fan Hui had elevated his game level in five months to the point of becoming world champion. Should AlphaGo add more victories after the match against Lee Sedol or not, this will not alter the impressive evolution of artificial intelligence. The fierce competition, costing billions of dollars, between big companies in this domain (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, etc.) reflects its initial results[7].

Figure 1 – High-performance of best computers, 1960-2020. Source: AMD.

When combining this extraordinarily rapid development of artificial intelligence with the technical progress of sensors and robotics, we obtain machines (robots, cars, etc.) able to evolve individually in unknown and changing environments. Progress is impressive in this domain, and is not likely to stop here. The last “humanoid” robot made by Boston Dynamics[8] (another subsidiary of Google, by the way) seems to signal a breaking point from a machine beginning to do all that is expected from a “real” robot. Furthermore, the demo video (in which we see the machine being bullied by a human) comes with many comments of compassion for the hustled robot: this is an interesting indicator of the acceptability of these machines among humans.

To give you a better perspective of this, even before these results confirmed an unprecedented technological acceleration in this area, the researchers were estimating that a team of humanoid robots would be able to beat the best human soccer team by 2050[9]. This meant that before 2050, the robots would move better and would “think” better than us (and for the latter there will be no need to wait for 2050). Technological acceleration suggests to us that the objective will be achieved in 2040… and that starting with 2030, we will probably have robots which although they certainly will still not play the ball as well as Lionel Messi, they will be able to accomplish essential tasks of everyday life. For example, we can look toward the Franco-Japanese partnership to provide Airbus with versatile humanoid robots capable of working among humans in the confined space of airline cabins[10]. If they prove capable of such prowess, they will certainly be useful in many other situations, too.

You think you are irreplaceable?

Obviously, only “basic” manual jobs are endangered by this rampant robot. Is that so? Let’s see.

Mr. X is a doctor with ten years of medical studies, good remuneration, and a very good neighbourhood office. He has not heard of Watson yet, the IBM software that won the Jeopardy game in 2011 and shortly switched to medicine. Now it is probably offering the best medical diagnosis in the world[11], that is to say, better than what real doctors may offer (well, it managed to diagnose cancer better than humans[12] in any case). In ten years’ time, Mr. X’s job will only be a question of asking an expert automated system for diagnosis, a better system than himself, one similar to Watson. In fifteen years’ time, half of his patients will do the same thing, by themselves, using the internet, while remaining comfortable on their couch. Fortunately, this is Mr X’s retirement year. He will be replaced by a social worker who welcomes patients only to keep a minimum of human contact.

Ms. Y is an academic with a PhD in chemistry (over-educated), brilliant enough to have obtained a research-professor position. Since it is quite difficult nowadays to publish articles in the best journals, fortunately she can focus on her teaching hours. But this would be forgetting the development of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): for each discipline and at each level, only the three best courses in the world survive and are followed by millions of students. Without students left in her classes, Ms. Y is not profitable anymore, so she is fired, and her university closes down.

Figure 2 – Number of MOOCs in the world, 2012-2015. Source : Edsurge.

Engineers? They will be soon replaced by some new software able to do the same job better and faster. Traders? Likewise. Sales assistants? Perhaps these will survive longer, but the purchases made online without them are increasing. Tourist guides? They will be replaced by smartphones. Translators? Ditto. We could go on naming more, endlessly. The most skill-demanding jobs are therefore not safer than basic jobs: cashiers in supermarkets? This is already an obsolete job. Local commerce? Cannibalized by the internet. Workers in factories and warehouses? Robotized.  Restaurant chefs? Robotized. Taxi drivers? Google-vehicled, replaced by automatic vehicles, as all drivers for that matter. Builders? Robotized or unnecessary, thanks to workshop pre-assembly construction. In reality, it is difficult to think of a job that is safe, except that of a psychologist, due to the general feeling of a future “useless” man which will probably prevail in our minds. All joking aside, the “safest” jobs will probably be those socially related, at least until the robots will be as well accepted as humans, socially speaking.

Robots, versatile enough for the above mentioned tasks, will probably arrive within 15 to 20 years. Automatic cars will be on our roads some time before. Expert software, better than humans, already exists and invades more and more sectors. Internet continues to decimate entire industries. This is what our society will look like in 2030, definitely different from the one we currently live in. There is one single point which slows down the inexorable marathon toward a robotic world: the expense. It is not because the cost of robots will continually remain prohibitive, but because the cost of humans, with the crisis and the current and future unemployment problems, is so low that they will still remain more interesting than robots, even if the latter are available 24 hours, never complaining or threatening with strikes.

Robotics barrier 

Will the current society be able to deal with this shock? Let’s be honest: the answer is undoubtedly “no” while political focus remains solely on growth and unemployment. Our leaders should dare to discuss the current “labour ideology[13]“. We have just seen that there will be only twenty years ahead, at most, before a drastic transformation of our social model, twenty years to invent a new model, no longer based on human labour: it is quite a short time for such a revolution. To overtake the sound barrier, several attempts have cost the lives of a few individuals. Only this time, in the case of robotics, we are not speaking of a single vibrating plane, but of all of mankind. The turbulence will be very powerful when we approach the moment when machine capacities totally exceed those of men.

Most probably, literature and cinema offer the best reflection on our possible future living with robots. Starting with Frankenstein’s creature that escaped the creator’s control in the novel written by Mary Shelley, and continuing with the war against the robots in Terminator, as well as the domination of machines in The Matrix, or the birth of a regulated and relatively peaceful robotics obeying the Three Laws of Robotics in Asimov’s work, we see the backdrop of images, hopes and fears about this revolution. These fears are also reflected in the present calls of well-known people such as Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates[14] or Elon Musk, asking for increased vigilance with these issues which could pose a real threat to humanity.

2025: Will parties campaign against technology?

Interestingly enough, man has sought for centuries to discover how to escape labour constraints, but when he is finally about to break free, he feels completely lost. Our entire society is currently based on labour. It is not by accident that, in these days, a television series focused on anticipation and named Trepalium[15]describes a society with massive unemployment (80%) forcing the authorities to erect a wall between the employed and unemployed.

Figure 3 – US unemployment rate trend since 1945. Source: Wikipedia.

Without mentioning the fears about possible arrival of “smart” machines that could escape their creators as presented in the most dreadful science fiction movies…

Yet, promises are at least as great as threats. On the side of labour, it will be the end of the laborious and unrewarding jobs[16]. On the side of humans, for better or for worse, the interconnected men, born in an internet era, are gradually transformed into “enhanced” men, with a kind of collective intelligence and capabilities (both physical and intellectual) enhanced by computer science, robotics and biotechnology, while remaining, at the same time, the foundation of the social unit. This is somehow the advent of “homo connecticus” humans, forming a human anthill whose overall intelligence becomes collective and transcends individual intelligence.

Nevertheless, the very legitimate fears about this technological revolution will undoubtedly appear on some political parties’ agenda. The parallel with the environmental problems is noticeable. The enormous development of pesticides since 1945 is one example: facing health risks, many political parties (led by the ecologists, of course) seek ways to limit yesterday’s progress, a progress which turned against the health of the population.

Figure 4 – Fertilizer consumption / hectare, according to countries, 1880-1999. Source: Our world in data.

The same goes for artificial intelligence, robotics and full interconnection of humans: it is seen as progress, when it causes mankind to evolve; it is seen as a problem when it challenges the human’s role. With no work and no individuality, man can quickly become “useless”, knowing that the technological revolution can also turn against the mental health of the population (in the best scenario). If in the case of the environment there is usually a possibility to step back[17], nothing like that is guaranteed within the technological revolution we’re talking about.

Starting with 2025, and increasingly thereafter, we anticipate the rise of a political speech aiming to curb this technological race, or even to regress with this evolution… and to send everyone to the mine! The same will happen as for ecology, as there will be reasonable speeches, but also more radical ones based on fear. Given the challenges we have just seen for human society, these issues will also be utilized by sects of all kinds, who will see this as the opportunity to snatch the populations scared by the current technological revolution and its perspectives. Some people already speak of technological singularity, a rational concept which is not completely devoid of intellectual interest, but which is so exaggerated that it prevents all possible reflection and increases panic. The intersection of environmentalism in its radical version (pollution is due to overpopulation) and the futility of human beings could also lead some groups to pressure for the drastic decrease of global demographics. Will there be massive sterilization campaigns offered to women by 2030?

This gloomy outlook should not stop people from thinking, quite the contrary. Since there is still time to calmly consider this problem, which is perhaps one of the most serious that humanity has ever faced, we recommend the rapid creation of think-tanks focused on this technological revolution, groups composed of citizens, politicians, scientists, psychologists and … why not even science fiction writers, who will consider uninhibited possible future ways to keep human beings at the heart of our future. These think-tanks will have a lot of work to do: they will need to come up with solutions and reinvent a social model no longer based on labour and on isolated individuals … and also they will need to make sure this technological “revolution” does not turn into “terror” for humanity.

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Notes :
[1]     Obviously, in long-term and on constantly evolving technological issues, we can’t be as precise as for classical 1-2 year anticipations…
[2]   GEAB n° 100, Dec. 2015.
[3]   Source : Libération, 03/03/2016.
[4]   We are exaggerating here on purpose, in order to underline our idea, but we are not at all questioning the quality of IBM’s former teams…
[5]   Champion of Europe, still… but of a lower level (2nd dan pro) than the best Asian players (9th dan pro).
[6]   At the time we wrote these lines, only these three matches were played. Final score on March 15: 4:1 – Source: Wired, 15/3/2016
[7]   It is important to mention that new computing power and huge databases are now marvellously working together for deep learning techniques (constantly improving).
[8]   Source: Le Monde, 24/02/2016.
[9]   Source:, 18/06/2014.
[10]  Source: CNRS, 12/02/2016.
[11]  Source: Business Insider, 22/04/2014.
[12]  Source: Wired, 11/02/2013.
[13]  Phrase by Jacques Ellul and title of one of his articles: Les crises, 07/03/2016.
[14]  Source: BBC, 29/01/2015.
[15]  French series produced by Arte:
[16]  Actually not only unrewarding, but all jobs will be done away with, which is the real problem…
[17]  Yet, for climate change, stepping back might take centuries…


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