Future-proof skills and AI policies for unknowns like the singularity

Surmountable Social Issues
Sep 30, 2023
7 min read
Robots are only the beginning / iStock

Issue 88 • Week of September 24, 2023

Forthcoming events herald a very different future than what we can comprehend today that complicates long-term planning. Luckily, we are not entirely unequipped. Psychologists, project managers, and intelligence analysts have long used the Johari window to help classify some of those upcoming changes.

The most obvious possibilities are grouped into a quadrant of known knowns. Americans should know that domestic semiconductor production is ramping up after last year's passage of the CHIPS Act to provide new manufacturing jobs. Energy independence for households is now possible thanks to advances in renewables that has nearly doubled the demand for green jobs over the past decade. Affordable travel and Internet advances continue to make the world smaller, proving that empathy and bilingualism will be even more critical for success in the future. All of these opportunities bode well for people whose career aspirations align with these skill sets.

Other situations entail known unknowns, where we see a path forward but do not fully understand the implications, and unknown knowns that we know are coming but intentionally ignore due to our own inertia or stubbornness. For instance, humanity may soon overcome uncharted territory to fulfill its long-held dream of colonizing Mars while simultaneously choking on plastic pollution, escaping flooded coasts, and running out of freshwater in major cities back on Earth. Preparing for these possible events in the next decade or two could guide a student's education or choice of where to live.

Then, there are unknown unknowns such as the dilemmas posed by artificial intelligence. Only a few years ago, headlines about the privacy intrusions of facial recognition and deepfakes challenged our First Amendment rights and lackluster media literacy. Before our society has figured out how to grapple with these existential questions, an even bigger Pandora's box emerges on the horizon.

Prolific inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who claims an 86% success rate on his predictions, estimated that computers will fool humans by passing the Turing test within six years and then expand those capabilities a billion-fold by 2045. That not-so-distant moment has been dubbed the singularity, which could be simultaneously both humankind's greatest achievement and our last given the vast range of unknowns to follow such a scenario. Its name was derived from a similar concept in astrophysics that is by definition outside of our known spacetime. Now, some scientists believe quantum computing and the recent rapid adoption of AI tools could hasten the arrival of the singularity to as soon as 2030.

Until then, AI and its subsets ML and NLP (machine learning and natural language processing) evoke both excitement and fear for their potential effect on one's career. Master ChatGPT and its kin to gain a competitive advantage, sit idly by while you are automated out of a job... or watch as your hard work trains models without your permission or compensation.

The last point has been a key focus of recent labor negotiations in Hollywood. The writers' union recently settled on a new contract that puts a lot of faith in studios to comply. Actors and directors have yet to agree on a similar stipulation, however, since vocal theft has already occurred in film narration. Artists are only the latest victims in the ongoing fight against obsolescence that has continually alarmed citizens since the industrial revolution.

How can we prepare ourselves and our society for the unknown?

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