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The Stupid Economy

Advances in automation and artificial intelligence already pose a clear threat to countless occupations, just as the technologies of the Industrial Revolution did for many forms of manual labor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this time, it is not just our jobs that are in danger.

PRINCETON – Most discussions about the march of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) have understandably concentrated on fears of massive job losses. But the implications of these technologies are actually far more terrifying. We have been brought to the brink of an alarming evolutionary transformation, not just of human capacities, but of the individual self.

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History provides only a partial guide for the uncertain future we face. What we know from the first Industrial Revolution is that new technologies can fundamentally alter humans and other species. The key to this process, according to Cambridge University’s Tony Wrigley, the great historian of the era, was the replacement of human- and animal-driven mechanical energy by more productive forms, such as coal and other fossil fuels.

To be sure, the large-scale devaluation of human and animal muscle power did not happen immediately. At first, many auxiliary tasks – including mining the coal, or creating intermediate products in workshops – still required enormous physical exertion. But, after around two centuries, physical strength was rarely in demand.

Gradually, the basic nature of work had changed. By the late twentieth century, farmers sat on tractors, and even coal mining had become largely mechanized. There were few people in developed economies still earning incomes from the sweat of their brows.

Human physiognomy also changed, especially when the Industrial Revolution’s full potential was realized. Sedentary lifestyles produced visibly different people. Waistlines expanded as previously salubrious diets, needed to fuel massive physical exertion, became increasingly unhealthy.

Some people saw these changes happening, and worried about them. A growing minority started to pursue intense physical activity not in fields or factories, but in leisure settings. The sweat of one’s brow was no longer associated with productive work, but with consumption – often conspicuous consumption. Gyms became new sources of community. And as coworkers started to exercise together, enlightened employers came to see such recreation as a valuable source of physical and mental wellbeing.

The Industrial Revolution was driven by mental activity. Another way of thinking about it, then, is as an “industrious revolution,” a term advanced by Jan De Vries of the University of California, Berkeley, Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University and the University of Tel Aviv, and other historians. In an industrious revolution, inter-connected groups of innovators compete with one another to devise new solutions to existing problems, resulting in a virtuous circle.

By putting a premium on mental endeavors and making physical routines obsolete, the transformation over the past three centuries gave people more opportunities to think. As humankind’s collective intelligence rose to new heights, the dream of human perfectibility emerged. But that, we now know, was an illusion. The level of intellectual attainment that resulted from the Industrial Revolution may turn out to have been a plateau.

The technological revolution now underway is generating a different sort of replacement. Many tasks that once required human intelligence – making connections and drawing inferences; recognizing patterns; tracing the implications of complex events – are now better handled by AI applications. Whether the job is to scan thousands of pages of legal contracts for inconsistencies, or to make radiological assessments, an algorithm can now do it more reliably and less expensively. Soon, this will also be true of driving a vehicle.

At the same time, modern behavioral economics has shown that human thought can introduce irrational elements into otherwise straightforward processes. The search is on to discover and control for characteristics of the human mind that could produce distorting, unproductive, or inefficient results. Apparently, the next stage in human perfectibility will require us to give up independent thinking and judgment altogether.

AI and automation have obvious implications for employment. But they will also affect the human mind. The jobs of the future, most of them in the services sector, will require a different set of skills, particularly interpersonal skills that robotic applications – even Siri or Alexa – cannot provide. The ability to perform complex calculations or sophisticated analyses will be far less important.

The problem is that many older activities – be it driving in difficult conditions on a mountain road or taking on a complex legal case – are a source of fulfillment for countless people, because they provide opportunities to confront difficult, intrinsically motivated challenges. Soon, those activities, like plowing a medieval field, may be lost forever.

Worse still, ample evidence shows that people may have reason to regret retiring from mentally demanding jobs and embarking on a life of leisure. It turns out that not having to think on a regular basis is neither restful nor enjoyable. On the contrary, it tends to lead to poor mental and physical health, and a deteriorating quality of life.

The elimination of countless cognitive tasks has alarming implications for the future. Just as the Industrial Revolution made most humans physically weaker, the AI revolution will make us collectively duller. In addition to flabby waistlines, we will have flabby minds. It’s not the economy, stupid; it’s the stupid economy. Already, central banks are urgently exploring new ways to dumb down their statements for an increasingly unsophisticated public.

Mass stupidity will be driven by technology. But, as with the cult of physical fitness that took hold during the Industrial Revolution, a new industry of intelligence training will likely emerge to counter mental deterioration. Listening to someone constructing a logically articulated argument will become an exclusive source of aesthetic pleasure and distinction. “Difficult” works of literature or visual arts will become an ever more attractive form of conspicuous consumption.

And yet something about this seems deeply unpleasant. It is bad enough to listen to people boast about their physical fitness. But braggadocio about superior intellect will be far worse. The need to prove oneself as a lasting relic of the old human supremacy will threaten not just the common good, but also our common humanity.


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