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Does Accelerating Technology Have to Create Dystopia?

By Motley Fool Staff - Oct 12, 2016 at 2:08PM

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Author, polymath, and expert futurist Robin Hanson's new book predicting our robot-powered future strikes some as fairly grim.

In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner has invited a special guest: Robin Hanson, a George Mason University economics professor and research associate at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute. Hanson has master's degrees in physics and philosophy and a Ph.D. in social science, and he previously worked on A.I. at Lockheed Martin and NASA. His recently published book is The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth.

Hanson joins us this week to discuss a broad topic: the future. Whether we're going to like the future he's predicting is a whole other question.

A transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Sept. 14, 2016.

DAVID GARDNER:

Robin, some of the reflection on your work and your thinking comes from people who say, "It sounds a little bit sad, or even grim. Dystopian." Do you think of it that way? Are you an optimist in life (forget about The Age of Em)? Are you a realist or a pessimist?

ROBIN HANSON:

I think I'm somebody who's happy with the world we live in, which many people aren't. The world, even, of a thousand years ago was, I think, still a pretty good world. I like humans. I like people. Even when they're poor. Even when they're struggling. Even when they lie to themselves, I just like people. A world with a lot more people-like things enjoying themselves I think is an OK world.

Now, could I think of better things? Great. But I'm also an economist. Economists are somewhat cynical. We don't think everything is possible that other people think. We think there are big constraints in organizing things and figuring things out, which mean that it's just hard to have the perfect world that many people imagine would be possible.

DAVID:

By so many measures, we humans have made tremendous recent progress in things like longevity, lower violent crime rates, lower infant mortality rates, higher empathy. Max Roser -- I don't know if you're familiar with his project, Our World in Data. I follow him on Twitter. To what do you attribute what I would think of as an unprecedented progress for humanity over the past 50 years?

ROBIN:

Well, humanity has been making unprecedented progress for several million years.

DAVID:

Maybe unprecedentedly accelerated, like we were not even...

ROBIN:

It's been faster...

DAVID:

Right...

ROBIN:

...but I don't think it's been faster for the last few hundred years. We've been in the industrial era...

DAVID:

Yes...

ROBIN:

...and I think progress has been relatively steady in the last few hundred years. I don't see any acceleration recently, but I do think there will come a time, in the next century or so, when suddenly things will speed up a lot.

But the growth we've had recently is because we've reached the industrial era, and the industrial era seems to be faster-growing than the farming era because we found new ways to share insights and innovations. It seems like most growth, for the last few million years, has been about generating and mostly sharing innovations.

Humans could share innovations faster than genes via culture. Farmers could share innovations faster than foragers, because they had trading networks that were long-distance, and they could embody innovations in plants and animals. Industry has had even faster innovations because we have networks of expert specialists. The plumbers in one place can talk to the plumbers in another place and pass innovations through specialized networks, and that's allowed, apparently, much faster innovation.

So the very fact that humans can accumulate innovations and insight outside of genes is the key thing that allowed humans to break away from the rest of the biosphere, and we've been learning faster and faster ways to do that ever since.

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