Rather than just certain industries, let’s imagine that every job could, instead of by a human, be performed perfectly well by a machine.
Everything that humanity currently produces is still produced, except that people stand at the sidelines and observe rather than participate. From the outside, things work in the same way. One way or another, energy is still harvested from the universe, work is still done, and ultimately, the human species consumes the products of this process in the ways that it always has.
At this point, humans are at a tipping point. We are faced with two choices.
On the one hand, we could build machines to do the job of consumption as well as production, denying ourselves the last job available to us. This is the final nail in the coffin for the relevance of humanity as we know it. This scenario is the birth of Humanity 2.0: the machine version. Some of our essence, some of our ideals are carried into the future by intelligences unimaginable, and perhaps they will remember their history and celebrate our legacy as they decide where to take their reborn civilisation.
On the other hand, we provide the direction. Rising to the challenge of defending their relevancy, the children of today’s human beings unite behind a common endeavour. They ride out into the universe and sow the seeds of the human spirit across the galaxy, and take their creations along for the ride.
Automation on this scale is, though perhaps in the distant future according to a human lifespan, inevitable on timescales only an order of magnitude greater. Then if we take this scenario as a foregone conclusion, in either case it seems that the key question we have to address is one of purpose.
What is important on timescales of millennia? What should intelligent beings, human or otherwise, try to achieve, and what principles should guide their efforts?
In my view, our task is to raise human consciousness to a level where our ambition as a species (and thus our capacity to answer these questions) is, if not unified, then at least coherent.
How would our world change if our thinking were framed in these terms? Would we become conscious of the conspicuous lack of direction and narrow horizons in today’s discourse?
Over the horizon we can hear a warning roll of thunder: an automated world is coming. My hope is that we are inspired by its possibilities, that we realise that the immediate, practical problems that politicians and journalists wrestle with every day (including those that arise from the effects of increased automation in society) can be informed not just by an operational imperative for survival and the relief of suffering, but also by an empowering, strategic vision for human beings.