Bread and Relevance

Article from Issue 197/2017

PayPal cofounder and rocket maker Elon Musk keeps getting himself into the news. Sometimes he gets notice for his new products and projects, but he is also famous as a kind of self-appointed spokesman for the techno-future.

Dear Reader,

PayPal cofounder and rocket maker Elon Musk keeps getting himself into the news. Sometimes he gets notice for his new products and projects, but he is also famous as a kind of self-appointed spokesman for the techno-future.

At a recent address in Dubai [1], Musk said "Over time, I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence. What is needed, according to Musk, is a high-bandwidth interface with the brain that "helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem."

To stay useful and relevant, you'll need to interface with a computer; otherwise, you won't be able to get a job, because all the robots and computers will do everything better than you can.

There was a time not so long ago when many people (not just science fiction writers, but many economists) believed the technological advances of the future would benefit everyone. The machines would do the work, and the humans would have their needs provided for, with more time for the things they cared about. The eminent economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would only work a 15 hour work week [2]. However, the details of our economy have, instead, concentrated the wealth generated by our new technologies into the hands of a small number of people at the top of the pyramid, and the rest of us work just as much as we always did. This proposed merging of humans with computers appears to be a strategy for how we can continue to tread water and stay afloat in our economy as we start to lose our jobs to technology.

Musk does not give an example of how this symbiosis would work – at least in the public descriptions of his address. The article at the CNBC site says his concept "… would see a new layer of the brain able to access information quickly and tap in to artificial intelligence."

Notice the verb "tap in," which gives the warm impression that the human is in control and is sampling the best of what the computer offers in a dignified and proactive way. A more likely scenario is that the computer would provide the intelligence and the human would provide the body, or the human would serve as a specialized "interface" for dealing with other humans, smiling and looking polite to customers and serving as the computer's "front end." Neither of these options seems particularly appealing to me.

It seems odd that Musk and others like him would conclude we need to change our human biology rather than simply saying no to technology or changing the precepts of our economy. The underlying assumption is, instead of all humans benefiting from the labor of the robots, the only people who benefit will be the people who own the robots, and if you don't own a robot, you'd better darn well become a robot, or a half-robot at least, or you'll run the risk of starvation.

This sounds rather bleak, but to be fair, I don't think Musk really thinks about it that way. The way this future worship works is you just close your eyes, tune in to it, and start imagining the "possibilities." The implication is that you are being creative and brave for imagining remarkable things, but it is actually rather linear and predictable: First we connect the computers, then we connect the telephones, then we connect the home appliances, then we connect … THE PEOPLE!!!!!

I will credit Musk with raising awareness about the issue of economic displacement brought on by technology, but I do wonder if the solution might be to address the issue of unequal income distribution rather than going to the trouble to turn all the people into cyborgs.

I don't know if Elon Musk's weird vision of the future will come to pass. I kind of doubt it, but I could just as easily be wrong. One thing I do know is, if we ever reach this reality where every human has the equivalent of a souped-up USB port in the back of their skull so they can go into a Vulcan mind meld with the computers in their environment, they still won't exactly be able to declare victory on this relevance thing.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief


  1. "Elon Musk: Humans Must Merge with Machines or Become Irrelevant in AI Age": http://www.cnbc.com/2017/02/13/elon-musk-humans-merge-machines-cyborg-artificial-intelligence-robots.html
  2. "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, by John Maynard Keynes: http://www.econ.yale.edu/smith/econ116a/keynes1.pdf

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