Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Leisure Society Will Be Built, Not By Labour And Capital, Not From Atoms And Bits, But With Energy And Intelligence

According to Marx, civilisation has been built by Labour using the tools supplied by Capital (with the proceeds going disproportionately to Capital).

Labour and Capital, the "factors of production", have long been a useful way to think about the world.

After the Digital Age began, Nicholas Negroponte observed that everything of value in the modern world was made up of either Atoms or Bits.

Indeed, at that point, "software", the intangible combination of logic and data, had become as important as physical objects (hardware).

Labour and Capital. Atoms and Bits. With each of these simple and elegant intellectual models, we were able to make sense of our world anew. 

And now, I believe that a useful way to look at the coming Leisure Society is to think of it in terms of two new and different entities - Energy and Intelligence.

Abundant and free energy is only a few years away

Robots and AI will soon replace humans at virtually every blue-collar and white-collar job

To produce anything in this world, we require a combination of Energy and Intelligence. Every process is driven by Energy and guided by Intelligence. Even matter - raw material - can be expressed as a combination of Energy and Intelligence. It takes energy to extract matter from the earth, energy to transform it into more useful forms, energy to transport it to where it is required. And it takes Intelligence to guide each of those processes. If Energy and Intelligence were free, raw material would be free too. In other words, we can discount matter in our analysis. it's only Energy and Intelligence that we need to think about.

We are approaching three "singularities" in our lifetimes, and I wrote about these earlier. The two basic ones are particularly important. The Energy Singularity (my term) will occur when the marginal cost of energy production falls to zero. The Technology Singularity (a term coined by Ray Kurzweil) will occur when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. More importantly, the Technology Singularity will practically occur when artificial intelligence can be distributed and applied at a fraction of the cost of hiring human intelligence for the same task, a cost which will continue to plummet even as its quality improves.

I believe that we are putting in place the building blocks of the coming Leisure Society. We think we're saving the planet by replacing polluting fuels by renewables. We're actually doing much more than that. By harnessing "renewables", we're reducing the marginal cost of energy production to virtually zero. In other words, we're bringing the Energy Singularity closer. In about 15 years, I predict that the world will be producing 100% of its energy requirements from renewables, and when the setup costs of that energy infrastructure are finally amortised, energy will begin to be free.

The cost of Intelligence is falling too. Soon, both disembodied AI in our networks and embodied AI in devices and robots will be available to us virtually free of charge.

When virtually free robots and AI begin to run our farms and factories, using virtually free power and virtually free raw materials, and intelligent transport infrastructure is able to deliver goods to us virtually free of charge, we will have arrived at the Leisure Society.