This episode is going to talk about what it means to be human, and what it means for our species when we become obsolete. Our technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, how will this affect us? Are we doomed, or are we approaching a turning point in human civilization?
It is not unreasonable to believe that eventually we will develop robotics and machine learning to a point when it will become possible to replace human laborers. Already we have replaced humans on factory assembly lines and in factories. Chances are likely that you have even spoken to a robot recently. When was the last time you called a major corporation and spoke immediately to a human? When was the last time you went to the bank and had cash handed to you by a human? How many times have you used the self checkout at the grocery store, or ordered pizza online? When was the last time you handed a letter to a postal worker instead of writing an email? When was the last time you stopped to ask directions rather than check your gps? Any law enforcement out there? When was the last time you mailed fingerprint cards to the FBI for manual lookup? How many of you had your soda mixed by a man behind the counter last time you bought lunch? How many of you went to a CPA for your taxes this year? How many of you instead used an online tax service? How many architects still build foam models rather than 3d renders? How many machinists still manually control their lathes rather than use a multi-axis cnc machine? How many gardeners’ hours have been replaced by automatic sprinkler systems? How many of our spy planes or tactical bombers have a human pilot in them today?
What happens when our technology is capable of replacing us?
This is one of mankind’s favorite fears, the robot uprising. Evolution has made us good at fearing everything, everywhere, pretty much all the time. In reality there will almost certainly be no robot uprising.
But, what about the singularity? The machine learning one, not the astrophysics one.
The singularity people imagine will likely come and go faster than one expects. We imagine humanity competing with a race of sentient machines because our evolution happens so slowly that there is time to fight over resources. If the machines are becoming asymptotically more intelligent, we are almost immediately irrelevant in such a profound way that I cannot possibly imagine it.
Still though, it’s not going to happen. Not from the type of progress I want to talk about.
I’m talking about the type of advancement I described in the first paragraph. Complex machines capable of replacing human laborers. I am specifically not talking about the emergence of consciousness or so called ‘artificial intelligence,’ a term I find woefully anthropocentric.
How will we react to that world?
After high school, and while I was an undergraduate, I worked full time at a hotel to pay my tuition and bills. I stood at the front desk and checked people in and out. Eight hours a day for five years. Considering we didn’t get holidays off, that’s around 1300 business days. More than ten thousand man hours. I was paid for that time, but to be completely honest it would have been far wiser for them to purchase a robot to replace me. Just like the bank, an ATM could easily have done my job. Insert credit card and receive room key.
This is exactly the scenario people get hung up on.
If they had replaced me with a machine, how would I have paid for school?
First off, that’s a valid question. Second, let me tell you why it is also a stupid question.
This is going to be hard to do for most of you out there, but imagine that machines really can do all the “programmable” jobs. All the service jobs and all the diagnostic jobs. Mechanics, salespeople, doctors, stenographers, taxi drivers, pilots, miners, fishermen, loggers, farmers, linemen, accountants, real estate agents, wait staff, hotel clerks.
If you can picture that world, you will notice that almost everyone is unemployed.
And that, readers, is such an amazingly, unimaginably, stupidly good thing that I am going to have to go back twelve thousand years so I can tell you about the last time something like this happened.
Sometime around 200,000 years ago modern humans appeared in Africa. They were just like you and me in terms of shape and intelligence. This is our transition from the caveman looking museum exhibit (Homo sapiens idaltu), to the shape we are today (Homo sapiens sapiens).
I’m sure that you are familiar with these guys. This is the time when humans were hunter gatherers. Wandering the world in a continual search for food and shelter. Their ancestors had been using the same stone tools to do the same hunting and gathering for millions of years. We kept doing more of the same for another 188,000 years.
These people had the same brain as you and I, and the same type of thoughts and feelings. They fought and loved, went hungry and ate too much. Enjoyed sitting by a fire, and weathered long cold nights. They worried for their children and bickered over tribal politics. They carried stone tipped spears and knives. They slept in tents and huts made from hides, stone, wood and bone. They had distinct cultures, art, and ritual practices. Their lives were certainly harder, but not much different than our own. This isn’t theoretical. These people left behind art, tools, and traces of buildings.
I would like to point out one more time, that we lived this way for around one hundred and eighty eight thousand years. And, unless you are thinking of cave art, that is twenty four times older than the oldest recognizable human story you can think of.
One more time. That isn’t a guess. That isn’t a wild theory with no evidence. We as a species are about that old, and for all that time we have been exactly as we are today physically and mentally. I think that is a really important point to recognize.
We were comfortably stagnant technologically for a very long time, but things never stay the same for ever. Change always comes. That change came around 12,000 years ago, in the form of the holocene extinction. This is when we took our first step into a new age, and it is laughable how similar the conversations of the time must have been to our own today.
For thousands of years, humans had been hunting the mammoth. They ate its meat, turned its hide into a textile, and used its bones to build and to make tools. We loved the mammoth, it was basically the Walmart of the older and younger dryas (aka the ice age). Everything you needed in one giant animal.
Things must have seemed great right up until the end. There was an endless supply of mammoths, and we were very good at hunting them. Who could ask for more?
As it turns out, twelve thousand years ago we were not very good at conservation nor at protecting the environment. Surprise! Like the American buffalo, we likely hunted the mammoth into extinction. There is some contention about the depth of our role in its decline, but our influence certainly sped the process. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was a really big deal.
When we killed off the mammoths, humanity began the process we now refer to as anthropogenic global warming.
Wait, wait, wait global warming is caused by cars! Right? What are you talking about 12,000 years ago?! What?
Deep breaths. Global warming is caused by an accumulation of various greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere which increase the trapped infrared radiation. This is the result of a differential transparency of the atmosphere to solar radiation and infrared radiation.
Did you read anything about cars in there? Nope.
It is easy to see how the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are a part of that process though, I hope. The following should not minimize the changes that we are affecting today, as they are orders of magnitude greater than our ancestors were capable of, but it is important to realize how long we have been at the process of altering our planet’s atmosphere and climate.
How does the extinction of the mammoths contribute to global warming?
Guys, if you are nerds like me, then you are going to love this.
The answer is not as complex as you might think. Mammoths and other mega-fauna were critical in the maintaining of grasslands. These grasslands covered huge swaths of land including Siberia, Beringia, and North America. [Beringia is the no longer extant continent which connected Asia to north america through the Bering straight] When the mammoths and other mega-fauna started to disappear, so did the grasslands. The loss of the mammoths allowed Birch trees to sprout up in place of the grass.
Imagine a birch forest without end.
A forest that covered Siberia, Beringia, and North America. A forest that could touch the Atlantic from both sides! That is so, so cool to me.
Remnants of this trans-pacific forest still remain. Great swaths of Siberia and portions of North America remain forested with Birch. The picture above is from a birch forest in modern Siberia.
Like any forest, this ancient one went through cycles of burning and regrowth. As many of you have heard in recent decades, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Likewise, many of you are sure to understand that burning wood releases carbon dioxide. Burning any carbon based fuel source releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct of combustion. This goes for wood, coal, charcoal, oil, fat, gasoline, diesel, natural gas (aka methane), propane, butane, pentane, hexane, any carbon based energy source.
As a quick aside, I want to point out that as a carbon based oxidizing life form, you are a carbon emitter. Ever wonder where your fat goes to when you exercise? Well it didn’t turn into pure energy, because if it did then the equation e=mc² suggests that you essentially detonated like an atom bomb when you lost a few pounds this year. Instead your hydrocarbon energy reserves are metabolized and converted into mainly carbon dioxide. Remember that when you are panting and breathing hard next time you try to lose weight! You are breathing out your fat, and technically contributing to global warming!
Let’s get back to our amazing, and I think romantic, global forest.
Each winter there are storms and lightning, and for a forest that can only mean one thing. Millions upon millions of acres of forest burning for months at a time. Wildfires with the potential to spread for thousands and thousands of miles. Imagine smoke and ash filling the air year in and year out. Ten years, twenty, a hundred, a thousand. Can you picture the cycle for five thousand years? Can you imagine the impact this has over twelve thousand years?
This is how the much argued over “Anthropocene” began. The epoch of Earth’s history defined by the measurable global impact which our human species has had, especially on ecosystems.
I will not insist on the validity of the Anthropocene as a defining term, but I do believe it is important to recognize that we are capable of the types of changes this term defines. By intent or otherwise, our actions have had long reaching consequences. The end result of our actions are not yet known to us. We have spent only the last few centuries engaging in what we now define as scientific investigation. Using the scientific method, we are able to test the validity of the guesses we make about the way the world works. Those guesses become models, theories, and sometimes laws. They are always up for debate if measurable and repeatable evidence is presented.
Getting back to the original narrative, we must now try to picture the world in which our ancestors lived.
The world was not so small as it is today, yet across the globe there would have been wandering tribes. Groups of men and women, toting children and the elderly along with them, searching for enough resources to survive. Each day would have been spent gathering wild fruits, nuts, berries, and edible plants. Long hard hours would have been spent hunting for mammoth, a food source which was dwindling. The climate was shifting for reasons unknown to these peoples. The mammoths were vanishing, as were the familiar plants of the grasslands.
How many political debates must have happened? Fights over the best course of action to best protect the population. How many would choose to cull the unproductive? How many would fight to feed everyone regardless of their productive capacity? No doubt both solutions were put to the test by various groups. The sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the socially outcast. They may have been discarded by some and aided by others. It is vitally human to see the world this closely, to struggle or fail to see a larger motif.
Above all there would have been a fundamentally divisive debate over the strategy to find food. Two big options. Do we wander farther and longer as we have always done, looking for the ever dwindling megafauna? Or do we make hunting secondary to the burgeoning art of domestication? To hunt farther and longer a group must be light and lean, there can be little time or energy wasted on anything beyond the task at hand. To attempt domestication of the plants and animals, is risky as well. A single bad crop or a blight would mean death to everyone.
This was not an easy choice to make, and it most certainly was not as binary a choice as I am making it seem.
To us today it seems obvious, farming is the key to building a thriving civilization. But, is it really that simple?
It is easy to assume that Humanity made the right choice, that we as a whole choose the wiser course of action due to our intelligence or our ability to make good decisions. How noble is man that he has adopted this new technological paradigm, ushering in the agricultural age while kicking off the chains of a nomadic lifestyle.
This type of thinking is unabashedly egotistical, and is not particularly useful.
The only reason that the farming trend continued is that it worked. Everyone who chose to continue the older trend of hunting and gathering eventually died out or joined more agricultural groups. That may seem somewhat pedantic, but it is an important point to realize. Humanity did not agree that agriculture was the future, nor did we do anything to protect or save those who failed to realize its benefits.
Humanity was short sighted and stubborn and many people suffered and died as a result. We made it through, but only by brute force. Certainly there were a few forward thinking humans around to create new choices for groups to make, but the groups themselves, like today, were myopically oriented. It is important to realize the difference, as the former way of seeing things is revisionist and totally unhelpful as a learning tool.
It took many thousands of years for the new technology called agriculture to change the world, but the change was dramatic. Humanity made the leap from wanderers, to builders.
Suddenly the vast majority of the population found itself with leisure time. No longer was every single day and hour a struggle for basic survival as it had been for the prior 180,000 years. What would that mean for us? What happens when suddenly not everyone has to work 100% of the time?
It is easy to fear such a change. As animals we are naturally selfish to a point, or at least aware of the possible selfish nature of others. This makes us pragmatic about how our societies will deal with changes to the status quo. As is often the response to socialism by those who have always lived entirely by their own means, the arrangement is considered unfair. Note that I use the term socialism here because a farming tribe must by default be a socialist organization of individuals. I think no one is likely to suggest that there is no benefit to be gained from coexisting within a tribe which shares its resources and protects its members. To suggest the opposite would border on absurdity. How then does this fit into our narrative?
As a society evolved around agriculture and shied away from the old purely self sufficient model, what happened to that society?
What happened to us Humans is the real question.
Did we all die?
Did agriculture fall out of practice, a beautiful dream but just not practical in the real world?
It is possible to deem all work equally weighted as does a communistic system, but this is not what happened over the long term with agriculture. As a way to balance the relative worth of different types of labor, we created economies. Anarchy did not reign. We did not all become communists. Our basic fears did not come true at the dawn of the agricultural age. We as a species simply adapted to a new way of living. It took a long time, and a lot of work, but in the end it allowed us to progress. With agricultural stability and a larger population supporting an economy, we developed new technologies at an astounding rate.
The major point I want to make here is that our fear of any change to the status quo made us susceptible to many lines of poor reasoning. I suspect that several of the words I have used in the last few lines have set your hairs on end and made you uncomfortable, possibly even angry, at a reactionary level. I think many may consider the last paragraph preachy. That is exactly the point I want to make. Responding in a reflexive manner to ideas, rather than reflectively, is ultimately a hindrance to our ability to make decisions for ourselves as a group.
With new found time on their hands, the majority of the population was able to educate themselves. Certainly not to any great level en mass, but the difference between an education provided by a small wandering tribe, and the information flow possible in a town, city, or along trade routes is vast.
Civilization as we know it now had begun.
This change gave rise to everything we think of as humanity today. All of our knowledge, all of our technology, all of our cities and our governments. Math, science, art, and the humanities all stem from the leisure time which was afforded us by the increased efficiency of agriculture and domestication.
As far as changes to the ‘status quo’ go, this was a big one for our species.
We have had similar small jumps forward since, the industrial revolution created another leisure surplus. The rise of medicine has extended our useful lifespans. None so profound though as the shift from hunter gatherers to farmers. From wanderers to villagers.
I won’t suggest that the individual was granted more leisure time as a result of the agricultural revolution, indeed it is likely the case that individual workload increased. A hunter gatherer may on average spend fewer hours each day acquiring food, than does a farmer working sun up to sun down for a harvest. The real point of progress is that as a whole species, the ability to bank resources granted us the ability to accidentally feed more than just the few in our local tribe.
Imagine a hunter scores a victory over a deer. He knows that this meat is enough to feed his family and compatriots for some finite quantity of time. He will not expend extra energy to collect more food until it is necessary. Each hunt will be enough to feed the group with a minimal chance of failure, as well as a minimal chance of creating a surplus. When a surplus is created in meat, there is great difficulty in storing it without spoilage. Hunting too often results in a greater opportunity cost. The precision of this system can be tuned reasonable well to predict how often one must hunt to survive.
Next imagine a farmer, or rather a farming community. As the group sows its seeds and works toward a harvest some months away, they do not know precisely what their resource yield will be. This uncertainty is reduced by working hard to ensure that even in the event of a massive shortage, there will still be enough food to survive. Meaning that in the event of good weather and ideal conditions, the group stands to gain a very large bonus. Since many staple crops can be dried and stored, this unexpected windfall can be saved for a time of need. The side benefit of this stored resource buffer is the ability to expand the population with some impunity.
Again, this does not particularly afford each individual a greater leisure bonus, instead “per capita” a society will develop a greater leisure bonus. This excess is what allows us to feed workers who build impractical structures like churches and amphitheaters. In a state of nature, the expenditure of energy on such a frivolous act would mean certain death. Likewise, what society of hunter gatherers would not laugh down the proposition to spend several generations building a great Colosseum?
So, here we are. Standing again on the verge of a tremendous shift in the way that our species exists on this planet. Looking forward to the unknown, there is a great emptiness in the prospect of unemployment. Emptiness which we as a species love to fill with fear and predictions of doom. What world shall we create that man might toil in the earth rather than live wild and free as a wandering hunter? What world shall we make that man should be burdened with learning all his life rather than work the land that gave his forefathers life?
The change that is coming will not be a dramatic shift. No one will make a summer blockbuster depicting the replacement of laborers with gradually more effective machines. No one will wake up to a robot uprising. No one will run in fear from their bread machines or robot vacuum cleaners. But, one day our great, great, great grandchildren will wake up to a world quite different than our own. A world where you may be connected with a computer when you call a major corporation. A world where you may take your cash from a robot rather than a human teller. A world where your taxi driver may have LiDAR vision rather than inefficient human eyes. A world that has drifted from spending its efforts supporting the builders and the dreamers, to becoming them.
The need for basic human labor will decrease, and the need for highly skilled labor will increase. We will certainly not be free to wander the world in a second Eden, but we will in greater numbers than ever before find ourselves achieving creative wonders. What if pyramids could be built without the suffering of a generation? What if the creative and the curious could attend higher education even if they come from abject poverty? What if we value the thinkers and the dreamers more than we value the tradition of flagellation? Twelve thousand years ago, we learned that it was not necessary to wander the plains and fear starvation. We decided that it was not a requirement of adulthood, or pride, to suffer in the way our ancestors had, working to earn their keep. We have learned that we can embrace our continually new found technological prowess to alter the status quo. To take meaningful steps toward the future rather than to stumble blindly on.
Stay tuned for part two!
Part 2: Among The Ants
Caughley, G. (1976), The elephant problem‐an alternative hypothesis, J. East Afr. Wildlife, 14, 265–283.
Guthrie, R. D. (2006), New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions, Nature, 441(7090), 207–209, doi:10.1038/nature04604.