Threat To Our Future Essay

We used to size up a person by counting his children. Now we count Rolex watches, six-pack abs and Instagram followers. The Center for Disease Control recently reported that Americans gave birth to about 10,000 fewer babies in 2015 than in 2014. Go to an airport departure gate and count how many people pre-board because they are seniors hobbling with walkers rather than young parents with baby strollers. The lack of babies makes the airplanes quieter, but for the country’s economic future, it suggests turbulence ahead.

In my book The Price of ProsperityI report that America now has more golf courses than McDonalds. This is not a story about Americans preferring manicured grass to grass-fed beef. It’s a story of 40 million retiring baby boomers looking for a place to take a walk and exercise.

The U.S. is not alone in the birth dearth. Some worried countries like France, Singapore, South Korea and Russia try to convince young couples to spend more time making “whoopee,” offering free motel visits. The Russians promise new parents a chance to win a new refrigerator! I cannot think of anything less sexy than a government minister dimming the lights and turning up a Frank Sinatra tune.

An aging population poses two separate threats, one obvious, the other less so. We have all heard that Medicare and Social Security will require an overhaul with debts adding up to $50 trillion. What’s to blame for this fiscal mess? Blame prosperity! During the 1950s, about 15 Americans worked for every retired senior. People died much sooner. Over the past 70 years, we’ve enjoyed wonderful inventions and innovations that have pushed up average life expectancy to nearly 80 years. Soon roughly two workers will support each retired senior citizen. And many people are living much longer than average. On Valentine’s Day 2016, the Marriage Encounter organization honored my wife’s grandparents for more than 80 years of marriage!

But there’s a second, more sensitive problem that stems from our prosperity and low birth rate. An older country with lots of retirees needs workers, whether as respiratory therapists in hospitals or waiters in restaurants. This requires an influx of immigrants. But waves of new immigrants can fragment the culture, unless a country has strong cultural and civic institutions. Here’s the paradox: Prosperous nations cannot enjoy their prosperity without becoming multicultural. But if they become multicultural, they struggle to pass on the shared customs and respect for history that bind a nation together. Mid-20th century traditions like American Legion hot dog cookouts, Memorial Day parades and community sing-a-longs sound so corny today.

Radio and television programs used to unite people. My wife’s grandma will tell you that in the 1950s and 1960s everyone tuned into the Ed Sullivan Show and shared the experience of seeing Elvis swivel and the Jackson 5 harmonize for the first time. Until the 1980s, Americans could choose only from a handful of television channels. When President Richard Nixon gave a speech, it was simulcast by all networks and even if you changed the channel, you simply could not get away! Now, with hundreds of television channels and countless websites to choose from, why would anyone feel compelled to listen to his neighbor? It is hard to get a country to “rally around the flag” when everyone stomps off in his or her own direction.

We must address both problems identified above: First, the lack of babies. Second, the splintering culture created by waves of immigration. I propose, among other thing, that young parents receive a tax credit for a second or third child, while automatically depositing the funds into a savings account. I also believe that U.S.-born Americans and immigrants must do more to show their respect for American history and culture. I would place the following requirements on all immigrants, and on all American students applying for a government loan or grant: Get your passport stamped at no fewer than five national historical landmarks or museums. If you cannot bother to visit, for example, the Lincoln Memorial, the Statue of Liberty and the Museum of Tolerance, I suggest you stand on the other side of the border and do not cross.

We need more young people—but young people who care more about whether the nation holds together than whether they’ve racked up more followers on Instagram.

If the New York Timess latest article is to be believed, artificial intelligence is moving so fast it sometimes seems almost “magical.” Self-driving cars have arrived; Siri can listen to your voice and find the nearest movie theatre; and I.B.M. just set the “Jeopardy”-conquering Watson to work on medicine, initially training medical students, perhaps eventually helping in diagnosis. Scarcely a month goes by without the announcement of a new A.I. product or technique. Yet, some of the enthusiasm may be premature: as I’ve noted previously, we still haven’t produced machines with common sense, vision, natural language processing, or the ability to create other machines. Our efforts at directly simulating human brains remain primitive.

Still, at some level, the only real difference between enthusiasts and skeptics is a time frame. The futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil thinks true, human-level A.I. will be here in less than two decades. My estimate is at least double that, especially given how little progress has been made in computing common sense; the challenges in building A.I., especially at the software level, are much harder than Kurzweil lets on.

But a century from now, nobody will much care about how long it took, only what happened next. It’s likely that machines will be smarter than us before the end of the century—not just at chess or trivia questions but at just about everything, from mathematics and engineering to science and medicine. There might be a few jobs left for entertainers, writers, and other creative types, but computers will eventually be able to program themselves, absorb vast quantities of new information, and reason in ways that we carbon-based units can only dimly imagine. And they will be able to do it every second of every day, without sleep or coffee breaks.

For some people, that future is a wonderful thing. Kurzweil has written about a rapturous singularity in which we merge with machines and upload our souls for immortality; Peter Diamandis has argued that advances in A.I. will be one key to ushering in a new era of “abundance,” with enough food, water, and consumer gadgets for all. Skeptics like Eric Brynjolfsson and I have worried about the consequences of A.I. and robotics for employment. But even if you put aside the sort of worries about what super-advanced A.I. might do to the labor market, there’s another concern, too: that powerful A.I. might threaten us more directly, by battling us for resources.

Most people see that sort of fear as silly science-fiction drivel—the stuff of “The Terminator” and “The Matrix.” To the extent that we plan for our medium-term future, we worry about asteroids, the decline of fossil fuels, and global warming, not robots. But a dark new book by James Barrat, “Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era,” lays out a strong case for why we should be at least a little worried.

Barrat’s core argument, which he borrows from the A.I. researcher Steve Omohundro, is that the drive for self-preservation and resource acquisition may be inherent in all goal-driven systems of a certain degree of intelligence. In Omohundro’s words, “if it is smart enough, a robot that is designed to play chess might also want to be build a spaceship,” in order to obtain more resources for whatever goals it might have. A purely rational artificial intelligence, Barrat writes, might expand “its idea of self-preservation … to include proactive attacks on future threats,” including, presumably, people who might be loathe to surrender their resources to the machine. Barrat worries that “without meticulous, countervailing instructions, a self-aware, self-improving, goal-seeking system will go to lengths we’d deem ridiculous to fulfill its goals,” even, perhaps, commandeering all the world’s energy in order to maximize whatever calculation it happened to be interested in.

Of course, one could try to ban super-intelligent computers altogether. But “the competitive advantage—economic, military, even artistic—of every advance in automation is so compelling,” Vernor Vinge, the mathematician and science-fiction author, wrote, “that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely assures that someone else will.”

If machines will eventually overtake us, as virtually everyone in the A.I. field believes, the real question is about values: how we instill them in machines, and how we then negotiate with those machines if and when their values are likely to differ greatly from our own. As the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom argued:

We cannot blithely assume that a superintelligence will necessarily share any of the final values stereotypically associated with wisdom and intellectual development in humans—scientific curiosity, benevolent concern for others, spiritual enlightenment and contemplation, renunciation of material acquisitiveness, a taste for refined culture or for the simple pleasures in life, humility and selflessness, and so forth. It might be possible through deliberate effort to construct a superintelligence that values such things, or to build one that values human welfare, moral goodness, or any other complex purpose that its designers might want it to serve. But it is no less possible—and probably technically easier—to build a superintelligence that places final value on nothing but calculating the decimals of pi.

The British cyberneticist Kevin Warwick once asked, “How can you reason, how can you bargain, how can you understand how that machine is thinking when it’s thinking in dimensions you can’t conceive of?”

If there is a hole in Barrat’s dark argument, it is in his glib presumption that if a robot is smart enough to play chess, it might also “want to build a spaceship”—and that tendencies toward self-preservation and resource acquisition are inherent in any sufficiently complex, goal-driven system. For now, most of the machines that are good enough to play chess, like I.B.M.’s Deep Blue, haven’t shown the slightest interest in acquiring resources.

But before we get complacent and decide there is nothing to worry about after all, it is important to realize that the goals of machines could change as they get smarter. Once computers can effectively reprogram themselves, and successively improve themselves, leading to a so-called “technological singularity” or “intelligence explosion,” the risks of machines outwitting humans in battles for resources and self-preservation cannot simply be dismissed.

One of the most pointed quotes in Barrat’s book belongs to the legendary serial A.I. entrepreneur Danny Hillis, who likens the upcoming shift to one of the greatest transitions in the history of biological evolution: “We’re at that point analogous to when single-celled organisms were turning into multi-celled organisms. We are amoeba and we can’t figure out what the hell this thing is that we’re creating.”

Already, advances in A.I. have created risks that we never dreamt of. With the advent of the Internet age and its Big Data explosion, “large amounts of data is being collected about us and then being fed to algorithms to make predictions,” Vaibhav Garg, a computer-risk specialist at Drexel University, told me. “We do not have the ability to know when the data is being collected, ensure that the data collected is correct, update the information, or provide the necessary context.” Few people would have even dreamt of this risk even twenty years ago. What risks lie ahead? Nobody really knows, but Barrat is right to ask.

Photograph by John Vink/Magnum.

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