Economic Consequences of The Singularity

Written on November 12, 2010. Written by .

Ray Kurzweil is an interesting guy. I particulary like the book he wrote on how to live long enough to live forever by being so healthy that you survive until immortality technology is developed. But he is perhaps best known for his predictions about what he calls “The Singularity”. This is a concept that he developed by studying the historical growth trends of computer technology. According to Moore’s Law, which Kurzweil’s theories build upon, processing power doubles approximately every 2 years. Kurzweil extrapolated this trend and compared it to estimates of the computing power of the human brain. He discovered that computers are expected to surpass the computing power of the human brain within a few decades.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have the same intelligence as humans because that depends on the software. But Kurzweil continues under the hypothesis that the human-level intelligent software will also be available in the next few decades. If this is true, then computers will inevitably be put to the task of designing more intelligent computers, causing an even faster exponential growth of computing power. Very quickly, computers and robots will overwhelmingly surpass humans in every possible ability. In his book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil defines the singularity in the following way.

What, then, is the singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.

Kurzweil predicts that the singularity will occur around the year 2045. Regardless of how long it takes to happen, the singularity is virtually inevitable. Kurzweil has been over-optimistic in his predictions before, but even if it doesn’t happen in our lifetimes, it will very probably happen in our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes. This is a very important issue because it will have a huge impact on society. Many people initially think it would be great to have a robots do all the work so that people can be lazy, but this view neglects a very important point.

Let’s imagine the transition from human to robot economy. It has been in progress for a long time now. Farm hands, miners, factory workers, and switchboard operators were largely replaced with machines and robots a long time ago. More recently, many telephone customer service agents have been replaced with computers that can understand human speech fairly well. But the process will not stop there. Soon there will be computer programs that can diagnose patients better than doctors and analyze legal cases better than lawyers. The world’s first profession will also be its last.

Up until now, when someone lost their job to a computer or robot, they just had to find a new line of work, perhaps after getting some additional education. But this system is going to become harder and harder to sustain when computers and robots take over the majority of jobs. Unemployment will rise and the unemployed will be in a very difficult position.

The issue is that most people currently survive by trading their labor for money, which permits them access to fundamental resources like land and food, plus the fruits of production. According to basic economics, as the supply of labor goes to infinite due to the introduction of computers and robots, the price of labor goes to zero. The common citizen no longer has anything of value to trade in exchange for access to resources – they are economically stranded. Even if they have a personal robot to do everything for them, that won’t help them get food if they have no land to grow it on. And it won’t give them shelter if they have no land to build on nor materials to build with. The current system permits access to resources only to those who can buy or rent it from the current resource controllers – the land owners and business owners. But without money, there is no way to convince the resource controllers to share.

So like Marx predicted, but for slightly different reasons, the current system is under the threat of rebellion by the unemployed and under-priveleged. Though I agree with some of Marx’s sociological observations, I highly disagree with the idea that communism is the solution. The problem is not capitalism, but the definition of “property”. Just like we’ve made the mistake of considering people to be property in the past, we are currently making the mistake of considering natural resources to be property. To avoid rebellion, we can correct this mistake by implementing a form of capitalism called geolibertarianism.

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