Guest Post by Michael A. Alvarez
In April 2000, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) published an article in Wired magazine entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” In it, he argues that “Our most powerful 21st-century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech—are threatening to make humans an endangered species.” At the time, his thesis and accompanying forecast were alarming, coming from such a credible source.
The underlying message in his article was clear: the rate and direction of technological innovation over time will lead to a world where humans are unnecessary and machines will be able to do without us. Instead of interacting with them in the way we historically have—programming them to execute the tasks we instruct them to perform—we will cross a threshold where we unwittingly relinquish the responsibility of making important decisions that we as a society need to make. They will do our thinking for us.
We are now twenty years since the publication of his article, and we have indeed experienced tremendous technological advancement. It is well-deserved that we marvel, celebrate, and appreciate how these advancements are adding or contributing to our experience of life as human beings. With artificial intelligence and machine learning in particular, however, one could argue it is vital that we take a moment to pause and look at what is happening through the lenses of Joy’s article.
“Our most powerful 21st-century technologies—robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech—are threatening to make humans an endangered species.”
Can We Prevent a Future with Machines as Masters?
The overthrow of the human species by machines is by no means inevitable. It will not happen overnight. There would necessarily be stages that we as a species would be witness to. Initially, there would be a state of reasonable reliance on machines to augment our thinking, in advance of relegating it excessively and detrimentally to them. Conceivably upon encountering a situation which goes too far, potentially threatening our existence or relevance, we could intervene.
Among the most salient considerations:
- What is the current understanding of our stage?
- How will we know if we are at the point where intervention is necessary?
- What will the indicators be?
- If we are to have a hand in ensuring continued relevance, what form will our intervention take?
There is no doubt that innovation is part of our nature as human beings. Invariably we should, must, and will continue to build and ascend into the acquisition of new capabilities. For our society and the well-being of our species, this has shown that it can be a very good thing. We have reached a challenging point, however, and it is vital that we start thinking considerately, and perhaps differently, about our approach to innovation.
The need to take other factors into account when selecting where to focus our innovative capacities is increasingly urgent.
What Dimensions Should We Examine?
Economic return to investors and shareholders is, of course, a significant priority when launching into a new entrepreneurial endeavor or corporate innovation initiative. The need to take other factors into account when selecting where to focus our innovative capacities is increasingly urgent.
Some of the most critical dimensions include:
- Societal benefit
- Potential job displacement and commensurate strategies for buoyancy
- Degree of collaboration among humans being fostered
- Global climate impact
The intent here is not to delve into each of these dimensions and propose a means for analyzing investment opportunities against each. The measurement of the above factors is complex and not straightforward.
The aim, rather, is to look more broadly than at each dimension and to look at them collectively. It is arguably now more important than ever that we approach innovation such that we are clear and intentional about what we are actually advancing. We do this so that we can craft and escort ourselves into a future that we desire; presumably, one where human beings will remain relevant.
New Categories of Jobs Arise
To take an isolated example, when it comes to security and industrial surveillance relative to job displacement impact, we know that the advent of drones is going to lead to a reduction in the number of humans needed to perform these functions. At the same time, it is also giving rise to the need for drone operators, mechanics, and interpreters. Some jobs will be eliminated, and others representing new opportunities are emerging.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists and outlines jobs across a myriad of categories. Over time, more job categories are typically added to this list than fall off of it. In other words, we can plausibly conclude that the future of work, and the relevance of human beings within the workforce, is something over which we can and could potentially still retain a degree of influence and control.
To Succeed, We Need to Change How We Innovate
What is paramount at this point as a species is to recognize to a far greater extent our interconnectedness with one another, and with the technology and machines we are advancing. We have a great (but narrowing) opportunity to be more deliberate in our approach to innovation, along with an imperative to take additional human and environmental impact factors into account in evaluating the entrepreneurial endeavors we choose to support and pursue. From this vantage point, the future does need us, perhaps in ways we have not yet considered.
Michael A. Alvarez is a leader in entrepreneurship, innovation, human development, and workforce preparation. He has founded and directed centers focused on these aspects of our economy at Stanford, UCSF, and Columbia.