The Irony of Automation
Demerzel, in Foundation on Apple TV

The Irony of Automation

A.I. might "liberate" most humans to do jobs that are less meaningful and entail limited agency. It'll be more fun than it sounds.

🎧 The audio version of this article is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and beyond.

We keep waiting for A.I. to liberate us from mundane, repetitive tasks or just plain old busywork. Then, we tell ourselves, we'll finally be able to focus on what we do best — showing empathy, being creative, and solving problems.

But what if we got it all wrong?

What if it is software that's about to be liberated? We've subjected it to mundane, repetitive tasks while we focused on the things we did best. "Did" because there's no reason why software won't become better than us at precisely those things: Coming up with new ideas, showing empathy, and solving complex problems.

Of course, to operate in the world, software would require human feedback. But it won't be the type of feedback humans currently have in mind. A.I. will not turn to its supervisor and ask, "is this ok?"; it will not present its plans to a committee of humans and wait for everyone to provide feedback and agree on some watered-down version of the original ideas. Instead, it will process human input in the same way most software products already do: By tracking the behavior and interactions of humans with and within different types of contexts, environments, and designs. A.I. doesn't need to ask us what we think or what works; it can deduce it through experiments.

Computing resources are scarce, as are energy and space. Once software is better-suited for innovation and creativity, comparative advantage would demand that software focus on that and leave other work to everyone else. Everyone else means us: We'll be able to do the low-value work that software is too busy (or expensive) to worry about. Sure, we might still have some (cheap) software to help us. But the fantasy that humans will create and innovate while machines work seems questionable. It might happen, but it is quite probable that it won't.

What are humans uniquely capable of? Being manipulated. That's one answer that comes to mind. Is there economic value in being manipulated? Of course. Manipulated humans can do many things that machines can't or are too busy to do: they can serve other humans, they can create content, they can maintain physical infrastructure (something A.I. will always struggle with, at least in relative terms — if Moravec's Paradox holds, A.I.'s cognitive abilities will always be a few steps ahead of its physical ones). And even when machines can do everything, humans might still be required for one final role: to lend legitimacy to machines.

In the last season of Foundation on Apple T.V. (warning: spoilers ahead!), an intelligent robot is revealed as the true ruler of the galaxy. The robot uses a hereditary line of human "emperors" as a front. While the humans serve on their throne and make decisions, Demerzel uses sex, words, and neural editing to pull their strings. When all else fails, she arranges for them to die and "uncorks" one of their genetic clones to continue where the previous emperor left off.

The human emperors, for their part, are living their best lives. They eat well, live a life of luxury, and have a harem of maidens to serve them — and automatically forget any embarrassing details. They are fit, healthy, and essentially live forever.

Foundation is based on the book trilogy by Isaac Asimov but adds a few twists and variations to the original story. Asimov published Foundation between 1952 and 1988. The ideas that seemed farfetched back then are more plausible today. After all, our attention and passions are already manipulated by software all day long. Today, it is done in the service of for-profit tech companies and governments. Is it such a leap to expect software to continue to do so for its own interests?

Over the next few decades, A.I. might "liberate" most humans to do jobs that are less meaningful and entail limited agency. But it might be more fun than it sounds.

Have a wonderful week.



🐪 I just returned from Saudi Arabia. Read my impressions and thoughts on the country's potential and what it should focus on.

🎧 I chatted with Jim O'Shaughnessy on the relationship between A.I. and remote work, how cities will change, the internet's role as a matching engine, and much more. Click here to listen.