People talk about the moment artificial intelligence equals and exceeds human intelligence as being an important landmark, or singularity. But it strikes me that there are at least two other major technological landmarks on the horizon. Landmarks that may be almost as transformative and potentially happen much sooner.
If we can find a way to hijack the human brain and make people feel good and contented no matter what is happening around them, then we will potentially have invented the last product we’ll ever need. Demand for most other goods should fall towards zero since they will no longer produce any utility in the form of increased satisfaction. Furthermore, as a human race we could potentially get stuck at this local maxima point and decide there is no longer a compelling reason to keep innovating and inventing new technologies, provided we can keep producing a steady stream of happy pills. In short, we could all become junkies.
Granted this is extrapolating to the extreme. An intermediate step to consider is the possibility that we simply create better than average recreational drugs. After all it is not necessarily a law of nature that all drugs must have negative side effects. Imagine if we created a stronger version of heroin that was extremely cheap and completely safe. One could imagine adoption of such a drug would be high. Such a development would dramatically transform the economic and political landscape, as many people would effectively “drop out” of society
Alternately, if we can produce truly compelling virtual reality, then once again we will have very little use for many other products. Assuming you have the minimum resource requirements required to keep yourself alive and online, you could live anywhere, perhaps a tiny box-size apartment on a cheap piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and still have a fulfilling life. Once again, as a society, our motivation to keep innovating and inventing could suffer. Why go to space if we can go to a more compelling and safer version of space in our minds?
As an intermediate step, we need not have completely perfect virtual reality to suddenly create tremendous competition with real life experiences. Should you go outside and take a twenty minute trip in the rain to go to your friend’s party? Or should you just stay at home and visit the party virtually while drinking a beer at home? Perhaps your simulation is lacking a sense of smell and the haptic feedback is very incomplete. But how much do you need these senses at a typical party?
People talk a lot about automation of services as a force for change in the economy. But sometimes people forget the other side of the coin: digitization of goods. Quality virtual reality is the ultimate form of digitization. It promises to make unique experiences as abundant as MP3s, and could be as economically disruptive to existing businesses as any other single technology I can think of.