Artificial Intelligence

Human Resources

Getting the most out of humanity

By Kate Pavao

Winter 2019

Here Profit talks to Byron Reese, author of The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, about what work will look like and why he’s feeling optimistic about what’s to come.

The Fourth Age

On Our Bright Future

There are two relevant facts I know: The first thing is that, on balance, more people want to build than destroy. Look at the open source movement, where people write code and just give it away; look at Wikipedia and Creative Commons. The second thing I know is that technology multiplies human productivity. And technology doubles on a predictable basis, so problems that are purely technical—such as disease and poverty and aging—eventually we’ll solve them.

On Job Creation

When technology lowers the cost of something, that creates new opportunity. If self-driving cars lower the cost of delivering things, then that’s just going to create all kinds of other opportunities elsewhere. It’s always easy to see the kinds of jobs that technology will take. We saw that it was going to be hard for stockbrokers, travel agents, the Yellow Pages, and newspapers. Now, what’s interesting is that nobody saw the millions of companies coming such as Etsy, eBay, Facebook, and Twitter.

On Robots Taking Your Job

I think that every 50 years, half of all jobs vanish. They’re jobs that are the same from day to day, where there’s no mobility, where the cognitive decisions that have to be made take less than a second, and where you can quickly train somebody to do them. If a machine can do a job and you make a person do it, you’re saying that nothing about that job requires anything of that person’s humanity. Get rid of those, and put people in jobs that only people can do.

On Humanity

If robots were doing all the work and everyone were independently wealthy, some people would play paddleball all day. Others might want to better themselves and achieve their maximum potential. When you distill it all down, what makes people happy is the extent to which they have agency to call the shots of what happens to them and not be swept along by forces that are out of their control.

Photography by Shutterstock