When we discuss the future human it is so often a question of physical and mental augmentations. Of our health, fitness, strength, knowledge and capabilities. Personally, I would like to be able to operate at my optimum mental capability for more of the day and more days of the week. All it takes is one poor night’s sleep and a day is lost.
How much more could we achieve with control over such factors?
In reality, these will be expensive and hard-won enhancements. Even when the technology is available, social acceptance and legal approval will take time. After all, I could have experimented with Adderall or Ritalin to overcome my sleep-restricted focus, but I haven’t. Perhaps if I were a generation younger they would be as normal to me as paracetamol.
Without drugs, or genetic engineering, or digital prosthetics, we know there is a massive gain to be made in human capability. One that affects everyone rather than the privileged few. And one that requires no great advances in anything other than political will.
Genetic gaps in learning between individuals are generally not that great. The largest ever study of the impact of genetics on educational attainment found a difference of 3.2% on the number of weeks of schooling an individual would complete given the maximum genetic potential versus the minimum. To put that into context, someone with two copies of the gene with the strongest influence might complete just nine weeks more education than someone with no copies.
In this context, environment is everything. How much raw intelligence is genetic is still the subject of frenetic debate. But we know that education is a good predictor of life outcomes. As this blog documents, in two studies accounting for all other factors, Steve Machin, Olivier Marie and Suciča Vujić showed that increased education has a significant impact on crime rates.
Part of the reason for this they suggest, is the ‘incapacitation effect’. Simply, if you’re in school or college you’re not elsewhere committing crime. As automation ramps up and begins to wipe out more jobs, it’s likely this incapacitation effect will start to become more important.
It is increasingly clear that this wave of technological unemployment is structural rather than temporary. AIs replacing call centres, administration and back office jobs. Drones replacing delivery drivers and postal workers. Robots running production lines and warehouses.
These technologies don’t completely replace people. But they allow a very small number of people to do the jobs of tens or hundreds. The AI I saw demonstrated recently could realistically replace 80% of call centre workers. A million people are employed in call centres in the UK. Imagine if the same maths applies to manufacturing (2.6m), and logistics (1.7m).
This technological revolution will undoubtedly create new jobs but there is little visibility of new employment on the scale and at the education levels of those already being replaced. Human beings remain cheaper than robots for many physical tasks right now, due to their complex combination of capabilities. But this won’t last. Humans may be more attractive as carers than machines, but how high can we afford the ratio of carers to clients to be? One to one would be incredible, but it may not be economically realistic when jobs are the privilege of the few.
What we see is a likely future of people without purpose. And we know that people without purpose are more likely to cause problems.
How do we give people purpose? Well, perhaps education is it. Life long education as a route into the jobs that are available. Life long education as a way to move between careers as industries change ever more rapidly. But most importantly, life long education as a respected goal in its own right.
Imagine a nation of philosophers, a word that literally translated means ‘wisdom lover’. People hungry for knowledge and respected for its acquisition, with or without commercial application.
Perhaps this is straying into the realms of fantasy. But one thing is clear. Future humans may be augmented in all sorts of ways. But at a societal scale, we can achieve much more, much faster through education than augmentation.
Education might not be able to offer people a higher wage. But it might be able to offer them a purpose.