The Future of Life Award is something I probably wouldn’t have heard of, had it not been for a lucky coincidence. On April 26, 2018, I wrote a piece in this space titled “Ready to lose your job?” It was an assessment of how quickly artificial intelligence could make the human workforce redundant. The technological advances in the past had failed to replace humanity in one crucial aspect. The ability to think. But with their ever-growing computational prowess machines were now threatening to supersede the human ingenuity in this vital sector too. While AI was in infancy and its better versions cost-prohibitively expensive there was still time. But technology doesn’t take long to scale and become accessible. In this piece, I also referenced MIT Professor Max Tegmark’s remarkable book Life 3.0 which deserved far more detailed reference than this one (an error I tried to fix in a research paper that was published in a journal two years ago). Prof Tegmark is a co-founder of The Future of Life Institute, which apart from giving this award has distinguished celebrities like Alan Alda, Morgan Freeman and Elon Musk on its board. It seems the piece reached the professor and through an email I was made aware of this institute’s existence. I couldn’t be more grateful because the people awarded this year are busy making another point closer to my heart: saving the ozone layer.
First things first. If you have not read the abovementioned article or the referenced book, please look them up and read them so that you have some point of reference. The book is so gripping that it will make your day. I will return to the matters pertaining to technology momentarily but first, let me introduce the recipients of this year’s award. Stephen Andersen, Susan Solomon, and the late Joseph Farman, who helped make the most successful international environmental treaty (The Montreal Protocol of 1987) a reality, are the recipients. Their work and the award were introduced recently in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast StarTalk. Again, I seldom miss any episode of this podcast but it so happens that had it not been for the above email I would have missed it.
The Montreal Protocol and these scientists had done a great deal in convincing the world that mitigation efforts meant to reduce the burden on the ozone layer did not need to compromise economic prosperity. From the research on the harmful effects of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the layer to actively convincing the stakeholders to reduce their emissions these climate change warriors have done a lot and deserve this award and countless others. But what next? Do we make peace with the idea of cutting back the emissions and be done with it? Or we, the sapiens, stop treating the ozone hole as a fait accompli, think big and take the war to the enemy? Ozone is not something that we are unable to manufacture artificially. Then why no talk of deploying resources to plan the regeneration of the layer in parts where it has depleted? There are even a few papers written on the theoretical possibility. But somehow, we have convinced ourselves that this option is either too cost-prohibitive or unreal. We are told that as a result of the mitigation efforts the layer is healing itself and will regenerate within our lifetime. Sure, but when the chink in the armour has been exposed, you live on a rock with nowhere to run and anything can go wrong shouldn’t you have the technology to fix this artificially just in case things go awry in the future?
This has been mankind’s problem. Always reactive, hardly ever proactive. Invent an elaborate framework to check the proliferation of nuclear weapons but do nothing to offer a solution to counteract the harmful effects of nuclear radiation on living tissue. If the study of scientific history has taught me anything, it is that given human ingenuity no task is impossible.
When Bill Gates decided to step aside from his Microsoft job and focus instead on combatting poverty and disease around two decades ago, I wrote a column pointing out that his software expertise could come in handy in fighting diseases like AIDS. The human genome is a code like any software. Not a binary code, I grant you, but a code nevertheless. So is HIV’s. Was it really impossible to crack this code? We never heard of a successful AIDS vaccine but the very same approach was instrumental in rapidly developing a host of successful vaccines against the novel coronavirus.
Recently, I was pleased to chance upon a conversation between two business executives at a high-profile conference in Islamabad. It was a session where they were discussing Society 5.0. While I really enjoyed the talk, I had reservations regarding a few points. A speaker had mentioned several binaries of our lives. One binary was people versus the planet. I had an issue with the framing. When I got a chance, I pointed out that people were the planet. Earth is fully capable of healing itself. But first, it wipes out the threat. We cause that threat so only we were at risk, not the earth.
But there were other concerns too. For example, how games and smartphones are driving a wedge between parents and their young children. I have heard this refrain hundreds of times. Even when I hosted and moderated an interaction with the then Chairman Higher Education Commission at an international university. We don’t realise that today’s generation is being raised by technology like many of us were raised by the television. The job of parents is that of physical and emotional maintenance officials. Play your role well and your views will be valued beyond your imagination. Mess it up and you may lose all leverage.
It is natural to have anticipatory anxiety concerning technology. One such example is AI, the topic of the article discussed above. Hollywood has left no stone unturned to frighten us beyond our wits. But here is the thing. There is no evidence in sight that Artificial General Intelligence, the likes of which we see in Matrix, Westworld or The Terminator, is around the corner. In fact, like aliens, we have this problem with sentience too. I call it Fermi Paradox 2.0. Logic dictates that when enough neurons connect sentience is born. But there is zero evidence of any self-aware entity other than humans. A whale’s brain can be 7 times bigger than a human, an elephant’s 3-4 times, but they are not self-aware. So, we have no convincing proof that singularity is even possible. Yes, machines can easily take your jobs. But that is a business decision, not a scientific inevitability. When I wrote that piece I had seen no evidence that the business community would choose human labour over machines. But then Covid happened and we have seen how eager the business community was to have the old workforce back. Perhaps that was also the reason behind Elon Musk’s irrational outbursts against the lockdowns. As long as humanity is interested in saving its future there is little reason to worry. However, a bit more proactivity will harm no one.