At The Edge.org, Daniel Kahneman interviews an Israeli historian named Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I’ve skimmed the book and would have found it more persuasive about 15 years ago.
Death Is Optional
A Conversation: Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Kahneman [3.4.15]
Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface … when brains and computers can interact directly, that’s it, that’s the end of history, that’s the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what’s happening beyond that.
But then Steven Pinker is called in to pour cold water over much of this:
… I’m skeptical, though, about science-fiction scenarios played out in the virtual reality of our imaginations. The imagined futures of the past have all been confounded by boring details: exponential costs, unforeseen technical complications, and insuperable moral and political roadblocks.
Some apparently unstoppable technological progressions can in fact be frozen in place indefinitely. An expert in the 1950s would be shocked to learn that sixty years later air travel would be no faster and in many ways less pleasant and convenient. The reasons are banal but decisive: people on the ground don’t like sonic booms; jet fuel became expensive; airliners are easy to hijack. Likewise, seventeen years after Dolly the sheep, no human has been cloned, because of the potential harm to the first experimental fetus and the dubious benefit to anyone of bringing the experiment to completion. Nor are we genetically engineering our babies, because we have learned that single genes with large beneficial effects probably do not exist. Segways did not revamp urban transportation, because city councilors banned them from sidewalks. And remember the Google Glass Revolution? …
I suspect that death will never be conquered (though our lifespans will continue to increase, at least for a while).Any cost-free longevity gene or easily tunable molecular pathway would have been low-hanging fruit for natural selection long ago. Senescence is baked into most of our genome because of the logic of evolution: since there’s a nonzero probability at any moment that an organism will die in an unpreventable accident, making genes for longevity moot, selection tends to sacrifice longevity for performance at every level of organization. This means we’d have to know how to tinker with thousands of genes or molecular pathways, each a tiny (and noisy) effect on longevity, to make the leap to immortality. The low-hanging fruit is in fact at the other end of the lifespan and income scale. We’ve made massive global progress in reducing maternal and infant mortality and premature death, but we’re not seeing a cohort of billionaire centagenarians.
Nor will we embed chips in our brains any time soon, if ever. Brains are oatmeal-soft, float around in skulls, react poorly to being invaded, and suffer from inflammation around foreign objects. Neurobiologists haven’t the slightest idea how to decode the billions of synapses that underlie a coherent thought, to say nothing of manipulating them. And any such innovation would have to compete against a free, safe, and intricately fine-tuned brain interface with a million-year head-start, namely eyes, ears, voice, and fingers.
It remains to be seen how far artificial intelligence and robotics will penetrate into the workforce. (Driving a car is technologically far easier than unloading a dishwasher, running an errand, or changing a baby.) Given the tradeoffs and impediments in every other area of technological development, the best guess is: much farther than it has so far, but not nearly so far as to render humans obsolete.
In terms of thinking about jobs of the future, it’s hard not to figure servants will make a huge comeback.
It would be interesting to know how many personal servants modern rich people like Bill Gates or George Clooney employ.
For Baby Boomers like me, the idea of having somebody waiting around for me to give them orders is highly uncomfortable. But, my guess is that the rich will increasingly re-develop the kind of personalities comfortable with personal servants that tended to be lost during the high-wage 20th Century.
Right now, rich people tend to have fairly flat, one-to-one relations with their servants, which imposes costs on the rich employer in terms of stresses — each one brings you his or her personal problems, squabbles with other servants, and other time-sinks. The increasingly unequal future might see the reintroduction of formal hierarchies among servants to shield the employer. The employer manages the butler, who manages the other servants for him.
Another key step will be the increasing whitening of the servant ranks as even B.A. whites decline in prosperity. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in Radical Chic, it became very awkward on Park Avenue around 1969 to have black servants. (Leonard Bernstein was able to host the famous fundraising cocktail party for the Black Panthers because, in part, he had white Chilean servants.)
Celebrities today mostly employ educated white people as their most personal servants, they just call them “personal assistants.” Here’s an interesting article in “Dissent Magazine” on how the main route into the creative/intellectual fields is becoming being a personal assistant, although it sounds like you have to weigh your ambitions very carefully against how much you would hate, say, the late Susan Sontag for the rest of your life after about a week in her employ.
I suspect in the future, master-servant relationships will evolve so that the employer gets to do the fun parts of the servant’s job. For example, affluent women who like to cook will employ cooks who will do the 80% of the work of cooking elaborate meals, but will have to step aside in the kitchen whenever the mistress thinks it’s time in the process for her creative culinary genius to take over.
The affluent will also have social media assistants. It will become declasse to take selfies for your social media presence when the better sort employ a photography major to shoot well-lit and nicely framed pictures of themselves going about their awesome daily affairs.