"Future Shock" Revisited

May 1, 2019

In 1965, futurist and writer Alvin Toffler coined the term “future shock” to describe the “shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time”.

AI doesn't just change a few things, it changes everything.

In 1970, Toffler published Future Shock in which he went in-depth about the many ways in which rapid technological and social change were leaving people disconnected and disoriented, severed from the past but not fully belonging to the future that was arriving too quickly to process.

The outcome of future shock, warned Toffler, would be catastrophic: “unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown.”

As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the publication of Future Shock, Toffler’s work has proven to have been somewhat prophetic.

Today, we certainly have what Toffler called “overchoice”, that is, too many products and options to choose from. (Amazon.com alone offers more than 600 million products.) We also live in a throw-away society in which many of those products quickly become obsolete or are tossed out and replaced by the newest model. As Toffler predicated, we’ve experienced steadily rising suicide rates, and 1 in 5 Americans today suffer from some form of mental health condition. 

Futurist Alvin Toffler

We’re transients too. We move quickly from company to company and city to city. We swipe left and right on Tinder. We get married and divorced then remarried. And amidst all of that, we’re continually subjected to what Toffler identified as the biggest future shock instigator of all: technological advancement.

“The high velocity of change can be traced to many factors,” wrote Toffler. “Yet technological advance is clearly a critical node in the network of causes [of future shock]; indeed, it may be the node that activates the entire net. One powerful strategy in the battle to prevent mass future shock, therefore, involves the conscious regulation of technological advance.”

While I agree with Toffler in principle, his clarion call for conscious regulation of technological advancement has proven to be somewhat impractical. Regulation comes from our political system, which is slow and fallible at best and completely ineffective at its worst.

Meanwhile, technological advancement has become increasingly exponential, following what inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil calls “The Law of Accelerating Returns”.

“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential,” wrote Kurzweil in 2001. “Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”

Machine intelligence or “artificial intelligence” (AI), refers to non-biological intelligence. The definition of AI has been a moving target ever since the term was first coined back in 1956 to describe the development of a “thinking machine”, that is, a computer system that was capable of imitating human-like cognitive functions.

Today, we use AI without thinking of it as a “thinking machine”. Every time you ask Siri a question, you are interacting with an AI, albeit a “narrow” or “weak” AI system. Similarly, when you do a Google search, AI is determining the most relevant search results. When you map a route on your smartphone, AI is determining the shortest route for you based on physical distance and possible delays due to traffic congestion. When you travel on an airplane, an AI system is piloting the airplane for most of the flight. But we don’t tend to think of these systems as “intelligent”. Today, they’re just hardware and software doing “computer stuff”.

In 1997, IBM’s chess-playing AI system Deep Blue defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov. In 2011, IBM’s Watson beat the top human contestants in Jeopardy!. In 2015, Google’s AlphaGo beat a top-ranked player in the ancient Chinese board game Go and two years later beat the world’s best Go player, Ke Jie. All of these AI systems outperformed their human rivals by playing millions of game simulations and gaining knowledge and expertise through machine learning.

As AI continues its exponential climb up Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, it will go far beyond games and permeate all facets of the global economy and human culture. AI will disrupt the job market with AI systems and robots replacing humans. Entire industries and institutions will be transformed or destroyed and governments will struggle to govern. In order to keep up with this rapid transformation, we will need to further integrate with AI systems in order to augment our own intelligence. (You’re already doing this every time you use that tiny computer you call a “smartphone” that you carry with you wherever you go.)

AI doesn’t just change a few things; it changes everything.

“AI is probably the most important thing humanity has ever worked on,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

“As the AI revolution accelerates,” write James Adams and Richard Kletter in their prescient new book Artificial Intelligence: Confronting the Revolution, “it will do so against the background of instability: a growing and hopeless underclass, a widening gap between rich and poor, a government that grows less relevant as it legislates for the past while the future comes ever faster, and an education system that teaches every new generation about a world that, by the time they graduate, will no longer exist.”

But perhaps our greatest future shock in the future isn’t going to be how to adapt and survive the “shattering stress and disorientation” that will accompany the shockwave of the AI revolution — it’s going to be figuring out what it means to be human in a world that’s dominated and run by machines.

Scott Dewing  is a technologist, writer, and teacher. He lives on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson.