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AI Powered Society

Once the capacity to create and use language and the ability to work with metals (copper, bronze, iron) developed, human civilization evolved rapidly. Communication became the backbone of human civilization to link minds, exchange ideas, govern, intimidate, chastise, reward, entertain, create and commune with gods, and link past and future generations. It invented the rule of law, put its faith in an unseen, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God, nurtured the fine arts, and laid the foundation for logic, mathematics, and physics. The agriculture stage proved to be vastly more productive than the hunter-gatherer stage; it allowed population density to increase to a few hundred per square mile in settlements with greater safety and food security.25 Farming communities gradually developed groups with specialized roles, e.g., soldier, ruler, and eventually the institution of individual property rights. When individual farmers began owning and cultivating their plots of land, it created a competitive spirit that greatly boosted efficiency and productivity. North and Thomas note:

It is this change in incentive that explains the rapid progress made by mankind in the last 10,000 years in contrast to his slow development during the era as a primitive hunter/gatherer.26

In the agriculture age, the role of the human mind had suddenly increased. The brain and the brawn (scholar and soldier) were competing for supremacy in social status. Human population and sustainable population density per square mile had greatly increased. In his 1776 classic book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith was clear that the wealth of nations depended on capital, labour, and mineral resources.27

The world population in 10,000 BCE is estimated to have been 4 million; in 5,000 BCE it was 5 million; in 3,000 BCE it was about 14 million; in 1 CE it was 200 million; in 1500 CE it was 458 Million; in 1900 CE it was 1,650 million; in 2000 CE it was 6,127 million; in 2010 CE it was 6,930 million; in 2015 CE it was 7,349 million. Projected figures (by UN) for 2020 CE is 7,717; for 2025 CE is 8,083; for 2030 CE is 8,425; for 2050 CE is 9,551.28 (The projected figures have no meaning when the world is undergoing a massive phase transition where mass unemployment will likely decimate a huge part of the world’s population. This is elaborated in later sections of this paper.)

3.3 The industrial stage

Industrialization saw a further sharp rise in productivity, urbanisation and urban population density and above all another radical change in lifestyle; the percentage of a country’s population engaged in agriculture, instead, became an index of poverty! Compared to agriculture, manufacturing requires little land; its growth limiting factors are skilled labour and capital. Skilled labour is much more scalable through training than finding cultivable land. Increasing population density led to more efficient capital markets (partly due to closer proximity of transacting parties), which, in turn, made financing of manufacturing capacity easier leading to further increases in output. At some point in 19th century, in Europe and the U.S., this upward spiral of economic growth got a further boost from advances in technology that led to more wealth, more capital formation, still more technological progress, in an apparently self-sustaining, gravity defying, upward flight.29 It saw airplanes, rockets and spacecrafts!

Until the 15th century, progress in Europe substantially depended on transfer of technology from Asia and the Arab world. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, science in Europe made amazing progress due to a galaxy of scientists that included Copernicus, Erasmus, Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Petty, Leibnitz, Huygens, Halley and Newton. From Newton onwards advances in science and technology took a meteoric path.30 Rational scientific thought gained deep roots and eventually destroyed the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Along with science grew great universities, research laboratories, and manufacturing industries dependent on technologies derived from scientific knowledge. It is now evident that highly industrialized nations became so not because of science alone but because they also assiduously built the “vital underlying institutions of property rights, scientific enquiry, and capital markets.”31 Over time, these factors have become encoded in their culture and broke their chains of poverty. The industrial stage emphatically showed that recovery from disaster, such as World Wars, is faster and surer when property rights are guaranteed.

Of the industrial era, in 1981, historian Daniel R. Headrick wrote:

Western industrial technology has transformed the world more than any leader, religion, revolution, or war. Nowadays, only a handful of people in the most remote corners of the earth survive with their lives unaltered by industrial products. The conquest of the non-Western world by Western industrial technology still proceeds unabated.32

At the time, nothing perhaps underscored the remarkable breadth of human ingenuity in developing technology than accomplishing the safe landing and walking on the Moon by two U.S. astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on 20 July 1969 and their subsequent safe return to Earth on 24 July 1969 with the event being broadcast live on TV to a global audience. In Adam Smith’s days (1723-1790) such a feat was possible only in science fiction, fairy tales and mythology.

Since late 1980, technology has advanced and expanded at a remarkable pace and scale. Advances in automation, electronics, communications, biotechnology, superconductivity, computing, plastics, and more have fundamentally changed society including the goals, ambitions, and lifestyles of the masses. Now trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, and geopolitical power flow from the exploitation of science- rooted technologies rather than from raw materials and smoky factories. In 1990, Erich Bloch, a former head of the National Science Foundation in the U.S. aptly summarized the role of technology in the market place at the time:

In the modern market place, knowledge is the critical asset. It is as important a commodity as the access to natural resources or to a low-skilled labor market was in the past. Knowledge has given birth to vast new industries, particularly those based on computers, semiconductors, biotechnology and designed materials.33

The economy dealt mainly with physical stuff – chemicals, steel, minerals, etc. The knowledge worker, though important, was more keen to shape the future rather than the immediate present. When the industrial revolution began, the world’s population was less than a billion people. By the year 2000, the population had exceeded 6 billion, and as we write (February 2019), the population exceeded 7.68 billion.34 This sustained, rapid growth in population was possible because of a rapid increase in scientific knowledge, its application to development of technology, and above all society’s ability to educate and skill its people in a continuous stream sufficient enough to provide a science and technology workforce required to run a multitude of new and emerging industries. During the industrial era, a self-sustained, increasingly prosperous synergy between man and natural resources developed till about 2000. Now, on the negative side, society is utilizing natural resources at a rate faster than their replenishment rate35; the environment is degrading. The hope is that humanity, because of a larger population of S&T trained people, will find solutions before things get out of hand. That may be wishful thinking. The industrial revolution showed that science is not just about esoteric theories but also a social enterprise. It is more so in the post-industrial society.

[ 24 ] So was Nature described by the poet Lord Tennyson in In Memoriam A.H.H. (1849), http://www.online-literature.com/tennyson/718/ before Darwin published his theory about the origin of species in 1859.

[ 25 ] Bernstein (2004).

[ 26 ] North & Thomas (1977). The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 1993 was awarded to Robert W. Fogel and Douglass C. North “for having renewed research in economic history by applying economic theory and quantitative methods in order to explain economic and institutional change.”

[ 27 ] Smith (1776).

[ 28 ] Population figures from World Population, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

[ 29 ] Bernstein (2004).

[ 30 ] OECD ().

[ 31 ] Bernstein (2004).

[ 32 ] Headrick (1981), p. 4.

[ 33 ] Bloch (1990), p. 9. Quote as reproduced at Warshofsky (1994).

[ 34 ] For an update, see http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/

[ 35 ] Alcoforado (2015). See also: WRF (2017).

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