Is technology the answer to life, the universe and everything?

A brief account of human history. Technology and economics 101. The human brain, belief systems and metaphysics. And lots of AI. That’s what’s included in Byron Reese’s book The Fourth Age, featured in CES 2019. There is no lack of ambition or ability to negotiate a variety of topics. But while the book succeeds in this, and shows methodical approach and intellectual honesty, its optimistic lens hampers its analysis and borders on solutionism.

“In The Fourth Age, Byron Reese offers the reader something much more valuable than what to think about Artificial Intelligence and robotics — he focuses on HOW to think about these technologies, and the ways in which they will change the world forever”.

“While we can probably agree that the exact future of AI has a lot of unknowns, and hence potential dangers, it doesn’t change the fact that we can choose to view the possibilities through an optimistic lens, as Reese does here”.

These are just some of the reviews people have written about The Fourth Age. The former belongs to John Mackey, co-founder and CEO, Whole Foods Market. The latter to an anonymous reviewer. They are both valid, in their own way. This may seem paradoxical at first, so an explanation is due.

Assumptions, and a brief history of everything

Byron Reese is the CEO and publisher of the technology research company Gigaom, and the founder of several high-tech companies. Reese has a keen interest in AI, and hosts the Voices in AI podcast. Reese gets to interact with some of AI’s top minds and entrepreneurs regularly, and is presumably embedded in the tech and entrepreneurship culture. This is the book’s greatest asset and most formidable liability at the same time.

Reese does a good job at presenting a brief history of everything: the course of humanity from prehistoric time to today, and how technology has evolved and affected humanity through the ages. This sets the stage well, and Reese also ventures on more ambitious undertakings, negotiating topics such as economics and labor, the human brain, free will and consciousness.

It may seem overly ambitious, but the fact is that when dealing with artificial intelligence and the future, adressing human intelligence and history is a necessary foundation. The good thing about how Reese approaches such topics is that he presents concise overviews of alternative theories or beliefs, showing how each assumption may lead to different conclusions.

The well-made point is that ultimately, some things are less about technology itself, and more about our fundamental assumptions about the world. If you believe in the divine nature of human soul, for example, it’s hard to see how you can also believe in the possibility of creating AI with consciousness. Reese states that he makes no effort to conceal his own assumptions, and that much is true.

Ideology and cognitive bias

Reese does mention ideology as a certain cognitive bias, for example claiming that Marx believed machines were at odds with workers. Marx certainly was no Luddite; his work shows admiration for technological progress, but questions the control of the means of production and the distribution of the fruits of this progress. But misrepresentation is not really the issue here – we could attribute this to what is probably a casual acquaintance with Marx’s work.

The issue is that Reese displays this ideological bias himself, albeit from a different standpoint. While he offers a grounded analysis of how capital accumulation interacts with technology to widen income inequality, for example, the conclusions he arrives at based on this analysis can only be justified seen through the lens of ideology and overly optimism.

Reese also discusses universal basic income as a means of accounting for technological disruption in labor and income inequality, citing statistics, quoting Warren Buffet, and even referring to the commons to build a case. While this seems like an open-minded approach, when Reese offers his own version of a vision for the future, his view on the topic is astonishing.

Reese’s view seems to be that in the long run, income inequality does not matter, because there will be abundance for everyone. This is the well-known “tide that raises all boats” argument, taken to its logical extreme. The issues with this are equally extreme, unfortunately.

Does technology equal infinite growth? There’s something missing from this picture. Photo by Simon Marsault 🇫🇷 on Unsplash

Infinite growth and Climate change

What this basically says is that there is no limit in natural resources. This implies either infinite growth on a finite planet, or interplanetary travel and technological breakthroughs that offer practically infinite resources. That world may be a very interesting place, as shown in Iain M. Bank’s The Culture series. But it’s far from being our world, and seeing this as the end-all is not only misguided, but ultimately dangerous.

Our biggest challenge as a species at this time is not interplanetary travel or conscious AI, it is survival. Our current trajectory is towards irreversible climate change, resource depletion, environmental doom, and everything that goes with this. Reese is on the boat of those who think exponential technological progress can, and will, solve everything. Even if it can, and that’s a very big if and a convenient way to kick down the can, this is a short-sighted view.

According to the UN, humanity has 10 years to act before the damage on Earth and its climate is irreversible. One would expect this may be a concern for a book which is about, well, the future. We are not talking about some vague or remote possibility, after all, but about the most crucial challenge humanity needs to deal with to even have a future.

Reese mentions climate change in passing 1 time in the entire book, while he devotes chapters to things such as implants. This seems like a glaring omission for a book that is about the future of humanity – maybe that’s not futuristic enough to be popular. Judging on his belief that everything is a technical issue, perhaps Reese also believes that something like Geo-engineering can solve the problem within 10 years.

Decision making and Deus ex Machina

Which brings us to another issue. Dealing with climate change requires
decision making, coordination and action on a global scale. Reese believes that the underclass has a say in decision making in Democracies. Another oversight in the ‘inequality does not matter’ argument is that money does not just represent buying power, it also represents decision-making power. What happens when income inequality is left unchecked is that decision-making power follows.

Buying a bigger TV is not the same as deciding the world needs more TVs. Reese claims we have collectively opted for a “better standard of living”. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we have been collectively indoctrinated to consume.

Reese does mention that people have the power to step up, when given a chance. So it’s quite interesting that the innovation that is praised when applied to technology is so cautiously, if at all, applied to decision making and education. Democracy, often referred to as the means to counter decision-making inequality, is not that different today from ancient Greece: it warrants equality among a closed group of privileged.

Reese’s view is optimistic here, too: the patricians will not risk social upheaval, and will therefore grant something to the plebeians. Maybe so. But if history is anything to go by, the patricians may need a little push. Meanwhile, time is running out. So what may turn out to be the biggest obstacle towards this bright future of automation is the fact that social progress is not keeping up with technological progress. It may well be, in fact, that AI favors tyranny.

We are collectively unable to keep up with technology in terms of the evolution of our social structure and cognitive biases. Even if technological progress and the economic system that dictates infinite growth were to simply come to a halt now, we would still need time to level the playing field.

Offering more technology as the solution to everything is like giving a mad gunman an infinitely more powerful gun, in the hope he will use it better than the one he now has. Placing our hopes on AI that will sort everything out is like waiting for a Deus ex Machina.

Yes, technology offers the potential for a better society. But only if used wisely and fairly, and this is the part we are missing and need to focus on.
We need to reform the mad gunman, and no AI is going to do this for us.

Disclosure: The Fourth Age was provided to me free of charge for review via Gigaom. I used to have a business relationship with Gigaom before Byron Reese became its CEO. After Gigaom was shut down by its former management, myself as well as a number of people who had outstanding invoices with Gigaom lost their money. To the best of my knowledge, none of this debt has been repaid by Gigaom’s new management.

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