‘I’m always happy to be surrounded by smart people, who also happen to be rich and powerful,’ Sophia the robot said late October in an emotive appeal to investors at Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative. The event took a disturbing turn when it announced Saudi Arabia’s claim to the future by granting ‘her’ citizenship (‘her’ because as well as a face and voice capable of copying human emotions, we now need a gender for complete anthropomorphic effect). For a country which human rights groups have long criticised for its poor treatment of migrant labourers, domestic workers, women and freedom of speech, the announcement seemed a public relations coup, at least to Saudi techno-capitalists keen to promote the country as a centre of technological progress.
As Sophia the robot shows, advances in artificial intelligence (AI) have forced their way into the global spotlight, pushing the parameters of debate and our boundaries for what we think is possible. Google’s DeepMind has recently taken its AlphaGo artificial intelligence programme to its next “superhuman” level, designing it to excel at the ancient Chinese strategy game Go, without learning from human moves.
Is the aim now a general AI that can do anything? Tackle inequalities towards (as Oscar Wilde argued in his 1891 essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’) the creation of a world where ‘poverty will be impossible’; or apply machines to do away with work (as William Morris suggested in his 1884 essay ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil’, for a world where everyone worked ‘harmoniously together’ and no one was robbed of their time by doing ‘useless labour’).
These proposals have traditionally been viewed as utopian, but relative to the aspirations of today’s far reaching technological innovations they are what I consider to be ‘non-utopian utopianism’. Equality — maybe even a world without economic classes that produces a diversity of outcomes and is directly democratic and self-organised — is pehaps a real possibility. Today’s technology only makes it more possible.
Since the 1980s and the end of the cold war, proposals for a world where poverty is impossible and life is easy for all — in a system that is neither capitalist nor state socialist, but decentralised and autonomous — have been beyond the popular frame of reference, and nearly unthinkable. Less far-reaching aspirations for more equality through social democracy and the welfare state have also been pushed to the margins, so Keynesian proposals for government intervention at times of economic crisis are considered radical. ‘There Is No Alternative’ is still the ruling mantra, even if social and material relations for the vast majority are crumbling, and technology is being developed to make humans a multiplanetary species by 2024.
In his book Capitalist Realism, the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher expounded on literary critic Fredric Jameson’s thesis that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: ‘Capitalist realism is the pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.’ The biggest tech billionaires are not limited by capitalist realism, perhaps because of their current class privilege. They can dream up and fund projects to surpass the boundaries of life as we know it while the vast majority struggle under existing conditions.
Those seeking to advance artificial intelligence also have their own version of the end of the world called ‘existential risk’, where AI causes human extinction or the decline of human civilization. It is a problem that Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Nick Bostrom and others have warned against. This concern about the possible negative impact of AI when it develops to a certain level assumes that a general AI is possible, with far-reaching implications harder to imagine than a new, equitable economic system, traditionally thought to be based on calculations, with no added intelligence.
There are serious barriers to developing a new popular imaginary promoting alternatives to capitalism (and new social and material relations more generally). But the constraints on what we think is possible, for what may even be considered utopian, may now be in the early stages of loosening; some of the most deeply held beliefs in technology, and how it will shape society and humanity, reach beyond the traditional utopian thinking of Wilde, Morris and others.
Ray Kurzweil, a long time ‘singularity’ evangelist now shaping Google’s machine-learning programme, argues that the exponential evolution of technology helps drive ‘The Singularity’, the point when machine intelligence surpasses its human inventors, forward. Venture capitalists and billionaires including SpaceX’s Elon Musk and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel fund Singularity inspired projects.
Silicon Valley’s utopia
From this collection of eclectic and futuristic ideas (some of them crazy), proposals for the social good, including eradicating poverty, do emerge. One such proposal is the debated idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) in which everyone receives a basic, regular and unconditional sum of money. In Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman makes a compelling argument for this idea by illustrating substantial UBI experiments, including the 1974-79 ‘Mincome study’ which earmarked $83m to ensure everyone in the small Canadian city of Dauphin Manitoba receives a basic annual income.
That would no doubt be a positive development. But would UBI in its current form be a step towards progress? Media theorists have warned that it is a ‘self-serving’ Silicon Valley project enabling people to carry on buying the biggest tech firm’s services after all the jobs have been automated. Perhaps it is a techno-capitalist scheme to generate new entrepreneurs and Silicon Valleys around the globe. Imagine a dystopian world where everyone is considered a potential entrepreneur competing to pitch the next disruptive idea in order to survive beyond the subsistence level of a basic income. ‘In the present state of things’, Oscar Wilde wrote, ‘the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.’ That is because the underlying problems with markets and private ownership of wealth and the planet’s finite resources, which give rise to inequality, are not addressed.
We live in an age where it seems, technologically, anything may be possible (if robots can be awarded citizenship and people may live to be a thousand). Maybe it is time to think about how to apply new innovations to old demands for equality, direct democracy and self-governance. A new post-capitalist economy based on calculations, and on artificial intelligence too, is possible. But making that a reality would require our collective human intelligence.
Chris Spannos is digital editor at New Internationalist (NI). NI’s November magazine is ‘Humans vs robots: who will gain the upper hand?’. Chris’s Twitter handle is @cspannos.