Will people still be useful in the 21st century?

A scene from the movie "iRobot."

Story highlights

  • We are developing new types intelligence that can perform tasks better than humans
  • What will happen once computerized algorithms can outperform humans?
  • Some some say we will become artists. Yet there is no reason why artistic creation is safe
  • Whether consciousness has a value beyond with intelligence is still a big question
As the 21st century unfolds, humans are in danger of losing their value, because intelligence is decoupling from consciousness.
Until today, high intelligence always went hand-in-hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or writing articles.
However, today we are developing new types of non-conscious intelligence that can perform these tasks far better than humans.
This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important, intelligence or consciousness? As long as the one always went hand-in-hand with the other, this question was a pastime for philosophers.
In the 21st century, this is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realize that at least for the economy, intelligence is mandatory but consciousness has little value.
The conscious experiences of a flesh-and-blood taxi driver are infinitely richer than those of Google's self-driving car, which feels nothing. But what the system needs from a taxi driver is to bring passengers from point A to point B as quickly, safely and cheaply as possible. And Google's self-driving car will soon be able to do that far better than a human driver. The same goes for mechanics, lawyers, soldiers, doctors, teachers -- and even computer engineers.
Dr Yuval Noah Harari
What will those superfluous people do? This is not a completely new question. Ever since the Industrial Revolution erupted, people feared that mechanization might cause mass unemployment. This did not happen, because as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines.
Yet this is not a law of nature.
Humans have two basic types of abilities: physical abilities and cognitive abilities. Over the last two centuries, machines replaced humans in performing physical tasks, and humans focused more on performing cognitive tasks. But what will happen once computerized algorithms could outperform humans in that too?
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The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking. It is based on the traditional assumption that intelligence and consciousness are inextricably linked to one another. For millions of years of evolution, this may have been true. But no longer.
When humans and computers fight it out in science fiction movies, humans always win eventually, because it turns out that they have some magical spark within them that computers can neither understand nor emulate. This is a legacy of the monotheist belief in souls.
As long as people believed that humans have a soul, it was also easy to believe that this soul has some magical powers that will forever remain beyond the reach of mere algorithms. But science doesn't believe in souls. The current scientific dogma can be summarized in three simple principles:
1. An animal -- including Homo sapiens -- is a collection of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
2. Computer scientists can engineer non-organic algorithms much faster than natural selection can evolve organic algorithms.
3. There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. After all, algorithms are algorithms. As long as the math works, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon, silicon or plastic?
True, at present there are numerous things that organic algorithms do better than non-organic ones, but this is only a question of time. Experts have repeatedly declared that something -- be it playing chess, recognizing faces or driving a car -- will "forever" remain beyond the reach of non-organic algorithms. But it turned out that "forever" meant no more than a decade or two.
So what will people do? Some suggest that everybody will become artists. Yet there is no reason why artistic creation will be safe from non-organic algorithms.
According to the life sciences, art is not the product of some spirit or soul, but rather of organic algorithms. If so, there is no reason why non-organic algorithms couldn't master it. Already today there are computer programs that predict the success of musical pieces or blockbuster movies better than flesh-and-blood art critics, and some computer programs even compose music that listeners find as moving as human-made music.
Whereas in the 19th century the Industrial Revolution created a huge new class of workers -- the urban proletariat -- in the 21st century a "Second Industrial Revolution" may well create a massive class of economically useless people.
Thanks to the wonders of new technologies, it will probably be easy to keep these masses well-fed, and even satisfied. The right dosage of drugs and computer games will do the trick. So there will be no need to exterminate these humans by force. The system could simply allow them to fade out quietly.
Yet the big question hovering over this prospect is whether consciousness has some intrinsic value which has nothing to do with intelligence. The political, economic and scientific establishments give far too little attention to this question. Both the life sciences and the social sciences invest immense efforts in examining intelligence and decision-making processes, as if life boils down to intelligent decision making. The brain is all the rage nowadays. The mind and consciousness, on the other hand, are seen as a mere epiphenomenon.
But the fact is that we don't have any idea what consciousness is. Though the life sciences take it as gospel truth that consciousness is produced by organic algorithms, nobody has any idea how this happens. It is just a dogma. A critical examination of this dogma is likely to be not only the greatest scientific challenge of the 21st century, but also the most urgent political and economic project.