The Robots are Coming
Of the 4 billion years this planet has been around, you (I hope) will be around for the most interesting 20 of them. An actual turning point for the entire species, and you get to watch it happen! For as long as the human race continues, this period of our lives will be categorized alongside the advent of fire, agriculture, and ordering burritos from bed.
The majority of you will live to see the day artificial intelligence (AI) in computers surpasses the incredible power of the human brain. It goes without saying though: for a population that can’t handle daylight savings time and grinds to a halt when pop stars get divorced, we might experience a rough transition.
How do we manage change on a scale few of us can even comprehend? How do we mitigate our fear of unknowns this large? Let’s take a look into what’s happening, what could happen, and how we can set ourselves up for victory in the ensuing robot wars (hot tip: shit tons of cardio)
What’s happened in AI up to now
Advances in artificial intelligence have been trickling through for decades. Steadily compounding over time, it’s understandable that we haven’t given it too much serious thought. That’s the thing with exponential growth–for a very long time it’s almost imperceptible until one day it kinda just happens. Also unique to exponential growth: we’re shitty at imagining it even when we know it’s a thing.
Would you rather have 1 million dollars, or a penny on day 1, which doubles each day for a single month? Yes of course it’s a trick question. The penny-per-day option leaves you with more than 537,000,000 pennies ($5.37 million dollars in total).
The thing about this example is that the million-dollar option feels better most of the time. At the halfway point, the penny chooser only has $81. Even on day 27, the penny chooser only has $671,000. Very little happens for a very long time until things change all at once.
It is very possible that when it comes to AI, we’re starting to emerge from that period where it seems like nothing is happening. The advances are no longer arriving decade over decade or year over year, but now month over month.
As an example, MidJourney is an art creation tool that you can type a phrase into and it’ll produce you an image. When I first started this blog, I thought I might use it to make the main banner for my home page. I wanted a gorilla on a therapist’s couch. Here’s what it created in version 1:
By version 4 it was creating stuff like this with the exact same inputs:
What’s impressive about that isn’t so much that the tech has come a long way, it’s that the long way you see there took 4 months.
An idea of what’s coming
In a brilliant post on his blog Wait But Why, author Tim Urban poses the basic question: If we were to time travel and bring somebody from the past into today, how far back would we have to go to find somebody whose head might actually explode off their shoulders based on what they see?
Tim argues if we truly wanted to kill a man with amazement, we’d probably want to pluck them from the 1700s. Going from a wheat field in 1750 to an airport in 2023 might just be enough to implode a man.
Here’s where things get interesting. How far back would 1750 man have to travel to do the same? If we sent him home (intact) and asked him to do the same with a time machine of his own, and he went back a further 250 years to the year 1500, there would be impact, but it wouldn’t be nearly as intense. Don’t get me wrong, 1500s guy will probably super enjoy the invention of mayonnaise, but he might not be destabilized over it (not until sriracha mayo at least). In order to truly kill a man with advancement, 1750s man would probably need to travel 13,000 years to a time before agriculture and cities.
And if 12,000 BC man wanted to do the same and truly blow somebody up with all his technological advancements? He’d probably need to travel about 100,000 years to find a person who hadn’t seen fire or language yet.
We have gone from mind-bending change arriving every 100,000 years, to every 13,000 years, to 250 years, to 30 years (remember when people thought the internet would be a passing trend?). This is a train that won’t be stopping anytime soon. So it begs the question: what will the next 10 years be like for us? Might it kill us?
What kind of change will AI bring?
In a brilliant podcast between former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt and Tim Ferriss, they attempted to answer this question. They landed on a delightfully ominous “we simply can’t know.”
Imagine a child being raised in a fractured or dangerous family. We know today the statistically probable outcome for that child is devastating. Kids who grow up not being heard, nourished, or protected face near-insurmountable obstacles in a world that already isn’t simple.
What if the child were given a robot friend that possessed the combined knowledge of all psychology, human behaviour, and science? It could listen, provide advice, encourage, challenge, and protect the child in all the ways their parent could not. What does that child become? The outcome is probably better, but as decided in the podcast, we simply can’t know, because we’ve never raised a child that way. We’ve never tossed a wrench into the gears of evolution quite like this.
A bias for fear
As cited in Morgan Housel’s excellent book, The Psychology of Money, this was a prediction from late 2008 related to the economic recession:
“Around the end of June 2010, or early July, Panarin says, the U.S. will break into six pieces—with Alaska reverting to Russian control … California will form the nucleus of what he calls “The Californian Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republic,” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington, D.C., and New York will be part of an “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of Northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia.”
While you’d be forgiven for assuming this is an internet conspiracy theory from a man reporting from a bunker he dug in his mom’s backyard, this quote ran on the goddamn cover of The Wall Street Journal.
We are now at another pivotal change that could dramatically impact the world’s financial outlook, and concerns aren’t much different. To pivot back to AI, it is understandable that a lot of people are very, very worried about where all this is going.
ChatGPT is a chatbot that’s been trained on every imaginable facet of human existence. One important differentiator is it can “remember” the conversation and respond accordingly. You can teach it things, and it will play along.
In my experience, it takes about an hour for somebody playing with ChatGPT to go from producing chocolate chip cookie recipes in the style of a pirate to racking a shotgun and asking “will this thing take my fucking job?” How will the government react to potentially millions of jobs disappearing once employers realize this one little chatbot can do the jobs of 10 people simultaneously and without sleep?
It’s natural for humans to hold a bias toward fear. The operating system of our mind flags potential threats far more aggressively than super-happy-fun time, and for good reason. When each day was a matter of life or death, it made sense to mainline anxiety from sunrise to sunrise because so much could kill you. The world was harsh, and we were bringing piss to a shit fight every day.
We’ve progressed past that though, and we exist for the first time in the history of our species mostly void of true danger. The likelihood of you seeing tomorrow is higher than it’s ever been, but your mind doesn’t know that. As a result, we tend to gravitate towards gloomy outcomes and predictions like our professor friend above.
So it makes all the sense in the world that on the cusp of this robot revolution, where we stand to irrevocably modify our own species with change, we’d be more than a little concerned.
What we can do
Embracing change with curiosity
Absolutely nothing in this world lasts. Good and bad, all things have a season. This seems to be one of those things that people are fairly good at agreeing with, but fiercely terrible at bringing into their life as a practice. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice most people suffer constantly as they push against this force every minute of their lives.
We fret endlessly over the discomfort we’re convinced will never leave, and we clutch with all our strength to the things we never want to be without. Despite knowing those battles can never be won, most of us go to war every morning.
Acknowledging the truth in both scenarios can bring great comfort. A major factor in pain is the fear that it’ll never end, so understanding that it will can alleviate it. A major factor in joy is being more focused on not losing it than experiencing it in the first place. By understanding that one day that wonderful thing won’t be with you anymore, you can better experience it and give it your complete undivided attention.
A fight we’re about to observe is over jobs. In short order, many of us will become milkmen picketing outside the grocery store, and it probably won’t go well. Those who require a solid base of how things currently are will be thrown off balance by the impending changes. Even those in professions that the technology won’t be able to initially touch will still have to live in a society that has undergone a tectonic shift.
The good news is that because we have a bias for freaking out, a lot of the changes will likely be less terrible than we imagine. There is good reason to approach these changes from a perspective of interest and curiosity.
When we don’t know what’s coming it’s an excellent strategy to remain calm and open, an even better strategy to prepare as best you can, and a terrible strategy to begin panicking. So how do we best prepare?
Manage your luck surface area
Sahil Bloom speaks often of what he calls a “luck surface area”. The idea is that what we see as “luck” is more the culmination of thousands of micro events, some random while others deliberate. In the casino of life, if you can manage those little deliberate actions, statistically luck will find you more often. Under the gun of incredible change, you may need all the luck you can muster.
We’ve all known the person who appears so fortunate that it’s borderline obnoxious. Life just seems to unfold for them in helpful ways at every turn. Certainly chance occurrences do a play a role, however their approach to life also matters. How do they react when faced with adversity? Who do they lean on when things become challenging? Often these people keep a level head and respond with logic over emotion when disaster strikes, and if they need help, they’ve usually established a strong social circle because they’re easy (or valuable) to be around.
Think of it as two people who have just been laid off. Six months later one is back on their feet while the other continues to struggle. Understandably the one without work might view the other one as the benefactor of luck, which is certainly what it appears to be when you look at the tail end of the events. Looking at the micro events that led to that point though tell a different story. Did they do an audit of what they’re good at and where they could improve? Did they both network and reach out to people that could help them? Did they lay the seeds years prior to strengthen that network when they were gainfully employed? There’s a good chance that these two people might answer those questions differently.
Bad luck will certainly strike, and there’s no way to avoid that, but fortunate opportunities will also find us. Many people spend so much time bemoaning their bad luck, that they aren’t prepared when the opportunities arrive.
So with the unbelievable fortune of knowing a spike is soon coming, how will you manage your luck surface area? Will you choose to ignore it and feel afraid, or will you become interested and wonder how you might be able to leverage these changes for your own benefit?
Will you be correct when you plan for this spike? You will not. It’s highly likely you’ll be super wrong, and this is one reason a lot of people won’t prepare at all. Remember though, you aren’t working towards a definite outcome, you’re working towards increasing your luck surface area. Maybe whatever you try becomes a spectacular failure, but what you learn through trying will become valuable for the next challenge.
There are so many unknowns ahead that paralysis is the truest threat. People who have studied AI as a career are finding that their predictions are being blown out of the water every day. It might not be far off to say it’s impossible to accurately forecast where this is going. When faced with such a conundrum, the best course of action is to avoid standing still and propel yourself in some direction.
Create for the sake of creativity
If there’s a group that currently freaking out a bit over Artificial Intelligence, it’s artists. Midjourney (our gorilla couch creation tool) can produce images that might have the style of a particular artist, but they’re entirely unique (like a painting in the style of The Starry Night, but it’s batman sitting on the can). It’s copying a style, but not plagiarizing directly, so the hope of putting this genie back in the bottle through any legal means is probably a pipe dream.
Similarly, writers are firmly in the crosshairs as ChatGPT is summarizing complex ideas and producing paragraphs with nearly unmatched clarity. They can argue it has “no soul” and is incorrect too often, but at the pace things are going, these are issues that could be solved by summer.
The music industry had a comparable issue in the late 90s when file-sharing services painted a future where none of us would pay for music anymore. Musicians lost their shit. Rock stars were speaking before congress pleading for regulation of these technologies. Whatever side you took in the debate, it didn’t really matter, things would move forward.
Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers took a different approach, and it’s one I think about often as many are ready to throw their hands up and walk away. When asked about the rise of digital music piracy:
“I did not have time or energy to even care about it. My focus was to make good music and put in the effort, that whatever happened to it afterwards I didn’t even care.”
You could poke holes in his argument all day. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers were already established millionaires by this point, he had the luxury of not having to worry about album sales, and he had a fan base that would still pay money for his products even if they didn’t have to. While all those are valid, his approach is arguably the most effective at increasing his luck surface area. He kept moving forward, and when the sky didn’t end up falling (weird, right?), he still had a band that could make tons of money on live shows and licensing.
On a deeper level, my concern around art and AI is that people stop producing because they worry it can’t be monetized and sold. That takes a narrow view of what it is to be a human that produces art. It’s more than a simple trade of goods for money, there is intrinsic value to creating that bleeds out beyond the wallet.
Creating brings us meaning, helps us find solutions to new problems, and connects us to one another. These are precisely the problems we will face as we enter a new epoch for humanity. Will the market for certain types of artists dry up completely? We’ve already established how impossible it is to forecast, but my personal feeling is it certainly will (take that for what it’s worth–I’m wrong constantly). If that’s you, you have two options: keep on keeping on or total paralysis. One might lead somewhere, while the other can only lead nowhere. One will keep you interested and connecting with others, while the other will isolate you.
Like a unicorn. What the hell did you think I meant? Aww you’re gross!
With the tide of robots that is likely to descend upon us, it’s unwise to blindly assume the landscape of work won’t change. People will definitely lose their jobs, but it’s not a straightforward task to figure out who’s going to be most impacted. We can make some very good guesses based on what the AI tools can already do. For example, people who must follow a script to communicate (such as customer service representatives or telemarketers) are potentially in for a tough few years. Beyond that though, things start to get tricky.
As established, we’re really bad at both forecasting and managing the unintended consequences of large events. If you travelled back to 2019 and warned people a massive flu was coming so you’d better buy a yoga mat and a bidet, people might wonder if you live in a bunker in your mom’s backyard.
For this reason, building out a plan to deal with work disruptions for an uncertain future gets muddy. We should improve, but the question of which skills to develop can become immediately confusing. So let’s borrow a trick from the world of productivity: leveraging your unique skills to become a unicorn.
What’s great about this trick is it can be immensely enjoyable. It’s not about quitting your job and grinding for 5 years to become an apprentice plumber. It’s more about taking stock of what you’re uniquely good at and combining them to find your unicorn abilities that make you difficult to compete with. Here’s how it works:
Take stock of what you’re good at. Think of being dropped in a room with 99 random strangers. What are you in the top 25% of? Not necessarily the best, not world-class, just what are you better at than 75 of those random people? Don’t worry about modesty, this is all in your head. Can you draw? Do you like public speaking? Are you funny? Can you cook? Are you really, really, really good-looking? It doesn’t matter what your things are, just that you can come up with 3 or 4.
The magic arrives when we combine them and explore the overlapping bits. Being good at drawing is a wonderful skill, but not necessarily rare. Being good at public speaking is certainly useful, but again, every conference has at least a couple highly skilled speakers. Being funny is a wonderful trait, but the same rules apply.
But what happens when we combine them? Drawers, public speakers, and funny people are everywhere, but people who can do all 3 at the same time? Now you’re unique. A conference speaker who engages the audience with laughter and hand-draws all their own presentation slides in a super creative way? That person stands out like a son of a bitch.
So what are your three things? Again, they needn’t be all that impressive, just better than most. Every time you add a thing, your unicorn level rises because it becomes less and less likely that we can find somebody who can do all your things at your level. You become hard to compete with.
If you can’t find 3 things then it’s time to explore what you could develop skills in. We’ve already outlined a few ways on this blog to get better at something rapidly:
- pick something you’re already interested in or enjoy (avoid grinding towards something you have no enjoyment or you’ll get trampled by your elephant)
- put 30 minutes a day into it (we vastly underestimate what we can accomplish in a month)
- develop a habit of doing it by allowing yourself a day to fall off the rails and be beautifully human (but not two days in a row)
Very few people are putting 15 hours of time per month into learning a new thing, those that are might not have your enjoyment of it so they’ll burn out, and most people can’t build a habit to save their soul. As a result, your likelihood of being better than 75% of everybody else in a given area within a few months is high.
We also can’t imagine how amazing AI could be
There is an outcome that some almost hesitate to think about for fear it’ll turn to ash in their hands: what if things get super fucking great? If we could compare the computing power we currently have to animal brains (which is complicated for thousands of reasons but it’s fun so we’ll do it anyways), we’re currently somewhere in the neighbourhood of a mouse. It may feel like a big jump from mouse to human, but given how exponential growth works, the leap is probably closer than most of us realize.
What’s cooler, is that the jump from standard human to Einstein-level human is not all that much. If the jump from mouse to human takes 15 years and things are getting faster and faster each month, the jump from moron to Einstein could take minutes.
What would an Einstein dedicated solely to the problem of climate change come up with? How about 1000 Einsteins that never sleep? Imagine every problem plaguing humankind being hammered out in an afternoon by an army of Einsteins that get smarter every few days.
A future that good might explode my head.
Humans may have a grasp of exponential growth, but our minds don’t do a great job of grasping it firmly. The idea that the robots of yesteryear that couldn’t navigate slight inclines might solve all our problems doesn’t make sense.
We’re naturally pessimistic for good reason, but that pessimism no longer serves us like it used to. While this shift may prove incredibly aggressive, it’s natural for us to only recognize the dangers while ignoring the potential benefits.
It’s likely employment will undergo a huge change, so it’s a great excuse to explore your strengths and weaknesses, leveraging one and shoring up the other. This process can not only make you more flexible to handle the incoming changes but (perhaps just as importantly) can be satisfying in general.
Approaching change with a sense of curiosity is a skill that can be developed, and that’s useful as life is a never-ending tide of change anyways. It can help you remain calm and logical in the face of fluctuating world events.
We must keep moving forward, both because it will increase our ability for luck to find us, and also because making things is an important aspect of being human. Whether it’s art, a hobby, or learning, the act of doing a thing just for the sake of it is easily lost in a society that puts a price tag on everything. People who create for the enjoyment of it tend to find a different gear of experience, and that gear can take them to all sorts of interesting places.
Now go do some cardio.