Shanghaied… into whose future?
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For those not in the know, two of the richest and most intelligent people with answers to that question went head to head in the Chinese city… and they wildly agreed on one big thing.
It wasn’t AI, even though their host was the World Artificial Intelligence Conference. It was population.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tesla/SpaceX chief Elon Musk fought vociferously over the safety of robots and the supremacy of human beings. Ma said we’d always outsmart our computers, which are no more than clever. Musk said they’d entomb us in a simulation we couldn’t distinguish from real life.
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But the two tech titans agreed we were running out of people.
Mars needs people, Musk quipped: it has zero right now. He thinks we can boost our chances of surviving the bot age if we hedge our planetary bets.
Yet he agreed with Ma that, instead of the old ’70s fear of a “population bomb,” we face a population bust… even a “collapse” of people so vast that immigration can’t fix it.
That means as people feel less and less important online, in real life, they’ll become more and more important, because there’ll be fewer and fewer of us.
That could be a recipe for war, unlike anything we’ve quite seen.
People fighting robots. Fighting those who own them.
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People fighting each other for control over territory where only bots really project much power or control.
But most people seem on track to shy away more than ever from conflict.
Look at America, where the elites and the people are both more anti-war than they’ve been in a hundred years… if not more.
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Look at Europe, where even huge protests and big populist parties have not led to any uptick in military activity.
And look at Asia, where the Chinese government is in a panic to lock down the whole county before civil order breaks down.
It’s not clear that starting foreign wars is a fix for internal trouble the way it was before the internet took over.
But it population is declining, countries may want to gobble up friendly groups outside their borders, as Russia has been struggling to do with its post-Soviet diaspora.
All while the population of robots, programs, and digital entities grows at a mind boggling rate.
The big scenarios are two: a future where the machines master us, or a future where we turn to human masters to see us through the unimaginable.
That’s the impression you walk away with from Ma and Musk’s exchange.
There’s only one country in the world where most people still have a fighting chance of getting a different outcome.
Are we up to the task? Or is the future already more like China than it is like the USA?