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Status will be all that's left


Love him or not, I’ve enjoyed watching Elon Musk’s rise in status to that of a cultural icon. Undeniably his popularity has taken a hit in recent months, but overall I’ve cheered him from the sidelines because it’s confirmed my belief (or desire to believe) that doing things and building things is better than being someone. In today's influencer economy where focus is placed directly on the latter, Musk seemed to show that if you focus on the former goal of building things then you can ultimately achieve both. His ascendancy in cultural status did not seem to me to be wholly a result of clout-chasing (despite the fact that these days, it's seemingly all he does).

I liked that. It was as if you could have your cake and eat it too. I pictured traditional class systems being eroded by this wave of meritocracy brought on by technology whilst the “elites” looked on anxiously. After all, if your ability to be someone was predicated on your ability to do things and have tangible skills, then those who have achieved or been born into status without having really done anything productive have a good reason to be scared.

Take the British royal family, for example - once genuinely respected and powerful, these days they look increasingly silly when confronted with the question “but what do they actually do?” The "learn to code" meme that went around at one time was a crude and insensitive way of expressing a similar kind of sentiment towards newly-unemployed journalists; it was a proclamation for building useful things as opposed to engaging in "elitist” armchair punditry.

Meanwhile, the capabilities of machine learning algorithms have been in the background creeping up on us slowly for many years. In the last few months, its approach has been somewhat less slow, and less in the background. Schoolkids are now bandying around the term “generative pre-trained transformer” on a regular basis (albeit in acronym form). Programmers are shocked at how accurately an AI can autocomplete their coding intentions based on the slightest prompting on their part. Visual designers are adamantly insisting that DALL-E and other text-to-image solutions are “not real art”. Overall, it has been interesting that the theory that AI would first disrupt and make redundant the truck driving industry has needed a drastic revision - instead it seems to be coming after the creative industries first; copywriters, designers, and programmers.

An optimistic interpretation of this oncoming tsunami is that rather than rendering such industries obsolete, AI will simply make them different. Tools such as Github Copilot simply change the way that programmers write code. Stable Diffusion and the like, will only change the way that designers work, and so on. There's evidence to support this theory - that human-AI hybrids perform better than AI alone - so it is possible that AI is arriving as something to be collaborated with, rather than something that takes humans out of the equation.

But what if it does take humans out of the equation? What if even the most "human" of faculties, such as imaginative thinking, or the ability to ask pertinent questions, become more suitably performed by a machine? There's no reason to confine this thought experiment to the digital realm. Some of the robotics demos I am seeing recently from companies like Boston Dynamics are seriously impressive. What happens when artificial dexterity combines with artificial intelligence, what then? What skillset is off the table for obsolescence?

Let’s assume for a moment that nothing is off the table. Any productive task is more cheaply, efficiently and more accurately performed by a machine. Where does that leave us as a society?

One thing is that we may have to expand our definition of “sport”. Probably, nowadays a robot would be a better archer than a human, and certainly a better chess player. The reason we haven’t let robots play or compete in these leagues is not because they’re not already better, cheaper to maintain, or more efficient, but because that would be less fun and less “meaningful”.

Evolutionarily speaking, one of the oldest faculties of the human mind is the propensity to assert, maintain, and acknowledge status hierarchies and to rank members of our species against each-other. Power cuts deep to our core. It might not be nice to put it so bluntly, but the reason a competitive athlete does what they do is in order to achieve the status of being the best. Much of the meaning we draw as spectators of sport or the arts is based on shifts in power structures. Think about rank outsiders Leicester City winning the English Premier League, or Walter White becoming a formidable underworld kingpin. No amount of artificial intelligence is going to stop us from being interested in this sort of thing.

What I am saying here is that in response to the onslaught of the artificial, our displays of skill are going to need to become increasingly artificial in turn. In a world where skills have no productive value anymore, the only financial incentive one would have for acquiring such skills would be if others are willing to pay for the spectacle of putting them on show in a constrained environment where machines aren’t allowed to compete.

It’s either going to be that, or our status systems will be no longer skill-based at all. There are certain attributes of humans that are likely never going to be mimicked by machines. Concepts such as “good looks” or “royal bloodlines”, which are scarce, immutable and uniquely human. Unfortunately, these attributes, which are more about “who you are” rather than “what you do”, and which have always been valuable but in recent years less so, are likely to take on a dominant role as status-augmenting factors.

Or, both things might end up being true. The skilful might be pitted against each-other for the entertainment of the skill-less, like some modern, digital-native version of the Roman gladiators. In an ironic fashion, the once-meritocratic promise of technological disruption could give way to an emerging aristocratic spectatorship.

Gosh, I hope I’m wrong about this.