What will be the place of humans in a future where almost all tasks will be automated by technological platforms?
By Johan Steyn, 18 October 2022
"Thirty-plus years of service. Combat medals. Citations. Distinguished.” The Rear Admiral was dressing down the captain. “Yet you can’t get a promotion, you won’t retire, and despite your best efforts, you refuse to die.”
I bet that most readers have by now seen this year’s blockbuster movie Top Gun: Maverick. Ed Harris’s character — in what is perhaps the most notable scene of the movie — is scolding Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchel, played by Tom Cruise.
“These planes you’ve been testing, captain, one day, sooner than later, they won’t need pilots at all. Pilots that need to sleep, eat ... pilots that disobey orders. The future is coming, and you’re not in it.”
That scene made me think of the pre-eminent issue of our age: the future (technology) is coming. Are we (humans) in it? What will be the place of humans in a future where almost all tasks will be automated by technological platforms? What will it mean to be human in a future where we are no longer the smartest, most creative beings on the planet?
Homo sapiens have evolved to control their environment. We are the lords of this planet. We make tools, fashion ideas and manipulate natural materials. We are the self-made masters of our world. For now.
As overlords of the earth, we have been miserably incapable as guardians of our home. Climate change is our own doing and at the current rate, it will likely lead to our destruction. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the last time we were on the brink of nuclear annihilation. If the autocrat on the banks of the Moskva River has his way, we may likely stare down that cliff again.
The new era of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies resulted in the most powerful tools we have ever created. It has the potential to expand longevity, cure disease, and increase welfare for all in an ever-expanding egalitarian society. But just like nuclear power that brings heating and light to millions of homes, if control falls into the wrong hands, it can lead to unthinkable destruction.
Not only have humans been toolmakers for thousands of years, we are also learning entities. We innovate and make our world better. We have seen how societies living in environments ill-suited for human progress have often innovated more profoundly than people living in idyllic environments. It is true that scarcity is the mother of invention. Are we busy inventing humans out of the picture?
Maverick is an older but far more experienced fighter pilot than the very capable, but arrogant pilots he is teaching (“Not this time, old man!”). Soon the youngsters learn that experience is more valuable than skill. Expertise will make you flourish, but it is experience that will keep you alive.
Can we automate experience? Are we able to find a way to simulate the things that human workers have grasped over many years of learning, growing and exposure?
Appreciating the value of experience, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky — played by Val Kilmer who is suffering from throat cancer in real life — tells Maverick in a strained voice that “[the] Navy needs Maverick. The kid needs Maverick. That’s why I fought for you.”
The world needs humans. Your business needs humans. Technology must serve humans to accomplish the things that only we are able to do.
Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of AIforBusiness.net