It’s important to realize exactly why the innovations of the past didn’t result in the kind of mass obsolescence that people feared at the time.
The reason was that instead of replacing people entirely, those technologies simply replaced some of the tasks they did. If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a metalworker in the 1700s, a large part of your job consisted of using hand tools to manually bash metal into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of machine tools, metalworkers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more metal with a machine.
Note the planted axioms here — the governing assumptions that the authors may not even know they’re making:
- That metalwork is neither an art nor a craft in which humans might take satisfaction but is simply a matter of “bashing” metal;
- That it’s better to direct machines to bash than to do one’s own bashing, because working with metal is drudgery but overseeing machines isn’t;
- That more metal-bashing is better than less metal-bashing.
I have, shall we say, some doubts about all those axioms. But let’s move on.
Consider the following, produced in the year 2322:
If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a writer in the 2000s, a large part of your job consisted of using keyboards to manually bash characters into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of AI, writers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more characters with a machine.
What a utopian dream! No one has to write any more — no one has to think of what to say, to struggle for the best words in the best order, to strive to persuade or entertain. You just say, “Hey Siri, write me an essay on why there’s no reason to fear that AI will replace humans.”
Wait — I was being sardonic there but it turns out that that’s what Smith and roon really think:
Take op-ed writers, for instance – an example that’s obviously important to Noah. Much of the task of nonfiction writing involves coming up with new ways to phrase sentences, rather than figuring out what the content of a sentence should be. AI-based word processors will automate this boring part of writing – you’ll just type what you want to say, and the AI will phrase it in a way that makes it sound comprehensible, fresh, and non-repetitive. Of course, the AI may make mistakes, or use phrasing that doesn’t quite fit a human writer’s preferred style, but this just means the human writer will go back and edit what the AI writes.
In fact, Noah imagines that at some point, his workflow will look like this: First, he’ll think about what he wants to say, and type out a list of bullet points. His AI word processor will then turn each of these bullet points into a sentence or paragraph, written in a facsimile of Noah’s traditional writing style.
Behold: an image of the future of writing produced by a writer who quite obviously doesn’t like to write.
What seems to be missing here is the question of why the people who now pay Noah Smith to write wouldn’t just cut out the middleman, i.e., Noah Smith. Maybe that’s the future of Substack: AI drawing on a large corpus of hand-bashed text so that instead of paying Freddie deBoer to write I can just say, “Hey Substack, write me an essay on professional wrestling in the style of Freddie deBoer.” After all, people who write for Substack have limited time, limited energy, limited imagination, but AI won’t have any of those limits. It can bash infinitely more words.
I think Smith and roon don’t consider that possibility because they have another planted axiom, one that can be extracted from this line in their essay: our AI future “doesn’t mean humans will have to give up the practice of individual creativity; we’ll just do it for fun instead of for money.” But we will only do that if we have time and energy to do it, which we will have only have if we’re not busting our asses to make a living. Thus the final planted axiom: AI and human beings will flourish together in a post-scarcity world, like that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels.