An optimistic perspective on the future of humanity

The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity” is a combination of “To be a machine“,  “Life 3.0” and “The future of the mind

How did we get here?

The world today sometimes seems ablaze in chaos, without direction. But then step back, and realise this list is paltry compared with what humans have overcome on our road from savagery to civilisation. It is always good to look and realise where we have come from. It started with fire, followed by language. That allowed us to develop stories and imagination as the first multipliers to share knowledge, which resulted in agriculture, cities and ways to organise ourselves as a collective, followed by writing (an old version of blockchain) and the wheel (an old version of the internet, allowing for ideas to spread quicker). These developments also helped our brains to grow.

Our brain is amazing

The brain weighs about three pounds, a bit less than a half gallon of milk. It constitutes only about 2 per cent of your body weight but uses 20 per cent of your energy. It is 60 per cent fat, meaning we are all a bunch of fatheads. Three-quarters of its weight is water, and it jiggles like gelatin.


The brain is the most complex thing in the known universe. The number of neurones in the brain is roughly equivalent to the number of stars in the galaxy, around 100 billion. That is a number so large that our brains, oddly enough, cannot fathom it. Each neurone is made of 300 trillion atoms. Each neurone in it is wired to 1,000 others. That is 100 trillion synapses. Then, to top that off, there are the glial cells, themselves almost innumerable.


It contains tens of thousands of miles of blood vessels. Often, brains are compared to computers, but they are not at all like computers in terms of architecture. If that is not impressive enough, in addition, at least 100,000 separate chemical reactions occur in the human brain every second.

Fuelling the brain

A brain is like an Italian supercar: it can go from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye, but it sure burns the gas doing so. Humans use an incredibly lavish 20 per cent of all of the calories we consume just to support our advanced brains. However, while the world’s fastest supercomputers require tens of millions of watts to run, they still come nowhere near close to the capabilities of our twenty-watt brain.

Copying the brain

If we needed a molecular-level resolution of your brain, this would be mathematically equivalent to making a copy, accurate down to each speck of dust in the building without ever going inside. Plus, given that the activity of the brain, not merely its contents, is what is key, imagine that there is a giant tornado in the Empire State Building blowing everything around at two hundred times faster than the fastest tornado ever, the proportional speed at which activity is occurring in your brain.

Our body

Our bodies are amazing too. You are made of forty trillion cells. Humans have a skeletal system with two hundred bones overlaid with seven hundred or so muscles. It takes six muscles simply to move something as small as an eyeball. Replicating that kind of flexibility in a machine is hard.

To put this in context of where we are right now

Caenorhabditis Elegans have just 959 cells, and their brains consist of just 302 neurones. Each of their neurons is connected to about 30 other ones, making roughly 10,000 synapses. So think about that. Your brain has as many neurons as there are stars in the Milky Way. A nematode’s brain has about as many neurons as there are pieces of cereal in a bowl of Cheerios. So one might reasonably assume that we can model a nematode brain or that we can understand how a nematode does what it does. Not even close.

Complex with 302 neurones

It should be doable. Just figure out how a neurone behaves, model 302 of them with 10,000 synapses, and presto, you should have something that behaves, in the computer, exactly like a nematode. But a nematode worm has 302 neurones, and yet it too is able to exhibit complex behaviour. Some take this to mean that we are nowhere near even beginning to understand how the brain works.

Then there is the mind

We have a mind too. What is the difference between the brain and the mind? The brain is an organ made up of three pounds of goo that behaves in a mechanistic way. The mind is all the mental stuff that you can do that seems way more difficult than this goo could possibly pull off.
The mind is why music can make you melancholy, and it is with the mind that we are able to imagine the future. Think about it. How could an organ be creative? How could three pounds of tissue fall in love? How could simple neurones think something is funny?
The mind is that it is the voice in your head, the “you” that watches the world go by. Read “Solve for happy

The fourth age

As our brain developed (and is still developing), we have now arrived at the fourth age. The age of robots and AI. We invented the scientific method, which led to computation, which led to Moore’s law.


Although we are accustomed to technology advancing rapidly, for more than 99.9 per cent of human history, it didn’t. One of the oldest tools, the Acheulean hand axe, remained unchanged across a million years of use. Imagine that! Unchanged for a million years. We will probably see more change in the next fifty years than we have seen in the last five thousand.

We are still human

But within the context of the overall arc of human history, little has changed in the past five thousand years. Just like the people who lived five millennia ago, we too have moms, dads, kids, schools, governments, religions, war, peace. We still celebrate births and mourn death. Forever with us, universal to all cultures of humanity, are sports, weddings, dancing, jewellery, tattoos, fashion, gossip, social hierarchy, fear, love, joy, happiness, and ecstasy.

The questions

At the dawn of the Fourth Age, AI and robotics force us to ask a number of big questions. The answers to these questions will determine the future and the fate of our entire species.

  • What is the composition of the universe?
  • What is reality?
  • Are you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules?
  • Are we nothing more than big walking bags of chemicals and electrical impulses?
  • Are we biological meat machines?
  • Are we animals?
  • Are we humans?
  • What makes us different?
  • What is consciousness?
  • Can computers be sentient?
  • Can a machine theoretically ever feel something such as pain?
  • What exactly is pain?
  • What life-forms can feel pain?
  • What is free will?
  • Where does free will come from?
  • Will computers have free will?
  • Do we have a soul?
  • What is your “Self”?


Defining “self” is interesting (and fundamental). There are three possible choices:

1. Trick

Your brain has figured out this cool trick whereby it can blend them into one single mental experience. It combines them all together. So that is all that the “you” is. Your brain puts all the senses together into a single show and lets only one part speak at a time. Those two things together give the illusion of a “you.” The brain self-regulates. There is no executive “you” in charge. Think of it as a giant cocktail party. The “trick of your mind” view suggests that brain function is basically understood and is reasonably straightforward, with all the appropriate caveats. The voice in your head is simply different parts of your brain grabbing the microphone.

2. Emergent

The second option is that your “self” is an emergent mind. At its simplest, emergence is when a group of things interact with each other, and through that interaction, the collective whole gains characteristics that none of the individual things has. Humans are clearly emergent things. You are made of forty trillion cells. Somehow there is an “I” that arises from all the activity of those forty trillion cells doing their respective things. We call that emergence. While we understand that it happens and that in a sense it powers the universe, we don’t really understand how it happens.

3. Soul

The final option is that your “self” is your soul.


Understanding “Self” is important for AI. Can our super complex brain, with or without a soul be replicated? That is before we talk about the gut and the communities of bacteria, viruses, etc. that are also part of a human body.

Smart and stupid

Because AI and robotics can do a lot, but there is also a lot it cannot do. Your ability to, in an instant, identify the architectural style of a house, identify a dove in flight, tell the twins you know apart, or perform any of a hundred other similar tasks that you do effortlessly is the envy of AI programmers everywhere. Life is kinetic, it moves. The physical world is a difficult place for an AI robot unless it is performing purely repetitive motions inside a controlled environment, such as a factory floor.


Imitating or replacing humans is difficult.

  • Context is difficult. Context is derived from the differences in a series of still images, and there are innumerable possible permutations of that.
  • Sound is difficult. People have this knack of being able to tune out certain sounds, but we have no idea how we do it, and we certainly have no idea how to get an AI to do it.
  • Touch is also a big challenge for robots. Think of the nuance of the pressure and the timing of every touch that you do “without thinking.” But a robot can’t do anything without thinking. AI doesn’t know how to improvise. Read “Dawn of new everything“.
  • Then there is the challenge of powering the robot, especially if you want the mobility that batteries enable.

Finally, the kinds of systems we are talking about here will become ever more deeply interconnected and interdependent. Digital systems are generally more brittle than analogue ones. The ripple effect of a small error might be quite large. Machine failures have a larger potential to cascade. (Read “Overconnected“)


However, any place where we have lots of data, even if it is unordered raw data, is an area where AI can really excel. Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, summed all this up when he tweeted, “The business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI.” Read “What is the future“.

Specialisation is job suicide

Say you are an attorney. You are a generalist. You make a good living. But how do you increase the rate you can charge? You specialise, perhaps in copyright law. Beyond that, you might specialise even further. Yet in doing so, you sow the seeds of your own occupational destruction. Ironically, the more you specialise, the easier you will be to replace with a machine.Our technology now moves forward faster than our ability to comprehend its implications. One topic that always comes up is the impact on the labour market. There are only three possible outcomes:
1. Robots and AI will take all the jobs.
2. Robots and AI will take some of the jobs.
3. Robots and AI will take none of the jobs.

Possibility One: The Machines Take All the Jobs

There are nine assumptions underlying this argument.
1: Humans are machines.
2: Since humans are machines, we can build a mechanical one.
3: Mechanical humans would have the full range of our mental abilities, including creativity.
4. This conscious machine would want to do our dirty work
5: Whether it is willing or not, we will compel it to, creating de facto mechanical slaves.
6: It would be economically practical to build such mechanical humans.
7: Machines would become so inexpensive or efficient that they would be cheaper to deploy than human labour.
8: The programming cost to teach the machine a new skill plus the cost of running the machine will always be less than the labour costs of paying a human to do it.
9: Humans lack the ability to find other tasks that machines cannot do.

Possibility Two: The Machines Take Some of the Jobs

Let’s explore the five assumptions behind it.
1: Machines and technology cause a net loss of jobs.
2: Too many jobs will be destroyed too quickly.
3: Not enough new jobs will be created fast enough.
4: Low-skilled workers will be the first to go.
5. There won’t be enough jobs for these workers in the future.

Job destruction

The “jobs will be destroyed too quickly” argument is an old one. In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes voiced it by saying, “We are being afflicted with a new disease . . . technological unemployment. But is it true now? Will new technology destroy the current jobs too quickly? In the report, entitled “The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries”, the authors apply a “whole job” methodology and come up with the per cent of jobs potentially lost to computerisation as 9 per cent. That is pretty normal churn for the economy.

Job transformation

Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs. The point is that those who think so-called low-skilled humans are easy targets for robot replacement haven not fully realised. Proof of what a magnificently versatile thing any human being is and how our most advanced electronics are little more than glorified toaster ovens.

Job creation

In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialities did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in entirely new job types that don’t yet exist. There are going to be innumerable new jobs created by all this new technology.

Possibility Three: The machines take none of the jobs

1: There are many jobs that machines will not ever be able to do.
2: There are, in effect, an infinite number of jobs.
3: We would work anyway.

A job as a pursuit

The truth of the matter is simple. We have decided that we would rather work more hours and purchase more of the “wants” we have in life. We have opted to collectively stay late at the office instead of growing and peeling our own potatoes. We all want a higher standard of living, and that desire is what creates most of the jobs. As long as you want more income, you will likely find a way to use your skills to add value somewhere, and that action is what creates a job.

Job to create a higher standard of living

You could snap your fingers and magically replace every job on the planet with a robot, pay everyone the same wage, and the next day, people would create new jobs to get more money to live a still higher standard of living.

Are there robot-proof jobs?

A good method for evaluating any job’s likelihood of being automated is what is called the “training manual test.” Think about a set of instructions needed to do your job, right down to the most specific part. How long is that document? Could anyone write a set of instructions to compose a sonata or write a great novel?

Robot proof jobs

There are many of these jobs: repairing antique clocks, levelling pier-and-beam houses, and restoring vintage guitars, just to name a few.
There are jobs that, for a variety of reasons, we wouldn’t want a machine to do. This case is pretty straightforward. NFL football player, ballerina, spirit guide, priest, actor, etc. Think of jobs that require empathy or outrage or passion. On-site jobs will be difficult to be done with robots.It will be hard if not impossible for computers to be able to do jobs that require creativity or abstract thinking because we don’t really even understand how humans do these things. Read “Robot proof


Quiz: Can a Robot Do Your Job?

  • How similar are two random days of your job?
  • Does your job require you to be in different physical locations, even different rooms?
  • How many people do your job?
  • How long is the training for your job?
  • Are there non-repetitive physical requirements for your
  • How long does it take to make the hardest decisions on your job?
  • Does your job require emotional connections to people or charisma?
  • How much creativity does your job require?
  • Do you directly manage employees?
  • Would someone else hired into your job do it the same way?

The issue is not jobs but income inequality

The future of income inequality is the same whether Possibility One, Two or Three happens. Regardless of whether AI robots take all the jobs, some of the jobs or none of the jobs, income inequality will be an ever-increasing problem. Two Italian economists compared the Florentine tax rolls of 1427 to those of today and discovered that the wealthiest families then are still the richest. Rich people do not want a revolution. No matter what happens with robots and jobs, upheaval is unlikely, because the cost of social unrest is far greater than the cost of preventing it from occurring. So the rich and the powerful have two choices: bribery or force. In the past, they have either bought off the poor with bread and circuses or violently suppressed them. What would you do? Remember, this is all against the backdrop of trillions upon trillions of dollars of new wealth? Do you risk it all trying to suppress the 99.9 per cent? Or do the rich accept an expansion of the welfare state?

Which bring us to the Universal Basic Income

Economic entitlements, without a means test, can be traced back all the way to heavily subsidised bread made available to any citizen of ancient Rome willing to stand in the line to receive it. The US government, as an employer of last resort, could hire 10 million people, pay them each $35,000 a year, and administer the program for about 3 per cent of GNP. Just imagine how 10 million people could be put to work: building infrastructure, painting murals, planting saplings, and a million other activities that are in no sense “useless jobs.”

The issue is not jobs but the use of robots in war

Metallurgy, the horse, the chariot, gunpowder, the stirrup, artillery, planes, atomic weapons, and computers each had a significant impact on how we slaughter each other. Robots and AI will change it again. In a split second, a soldier, who is subject to fatigue or fear, can make a literally fatal mistake. To a robot, however, a split second is all it ever needs.

Weaponised technology

There are three reasons these robot weapons are compelling. First, they will be more effective at their missions than human soldiers. Second, there is a fear that potential adversaries are developing these technologies. And third, they will reduce the human casualties of the militaries that deploy them. The last one has a chilling side effect: it could make warfare more common by lowering the political costs of it.

Kill decisions

Should robots be allowed to make a kill decision? Well, in a sense, they have been doing so for over a century. Humans were perfectly willing to plant millions of landmines that blew the legs off a soldier or a child with equal effectiveness. These weapons had a rudimentary form of AI: if something weighed more than fifty pounds, they detonated. If a company had marketed a mine that could tell the difference between a child and soldier, perhaps by weight or length of stride, they would be used because of their increased effectiveness. And that would be better, right? If a newer model could sniff for gunpowder before blowing up, they would be used as well for the same reason. Pretty soon you work your way up to a robot making a kill decision with no human involved.

Drone warfare, missiles, and bombs are all similarly unprecise. They are each a type of killer robot. The difference between a land mine and the Terminator is only a matter of degree.

Should we build an AGI?

This is an existential question. Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last. The Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom likened the current effort to build an AGI to “children playing with a bomb.” Stephen Hawking explains the issue well: “Once machines reach the critical stage of being able to evolve themselves, we cannot predict whether their goals will be the same as ours.”

Think about it

An AGI could then create even better versions of itself at the speed of light, while humans can improve only at the speed of life.Sloppy programming combined with giving an AGI great cognitive powers could yield disaster. Read “Life 3.0” If it really is a superintelligence, then by definition, we can’t know, because we have no way of knowing how it thinks. Also, read “The Seventh Sense“.

Humans as insects

A little math revealed that collectively humans kill a trillion insects a year in this fashion. To the insect world, we must be the cruellest of monsters, and if they could reason, insects would certainly think cars were designed to be giant insect-killing machines. But frankly, we hardly ever give it a thought. Similarly, an AGI could become so different from us that it wouldn’t even contemplate the effects of its actions on us.

The Matrix

For instance, it might need more processing power, and looking around, see seven billion brains that are being used for little more than storing memories of sitcom episodes, and decide that our storage and parallel processing power could be better used. Cue Matrix theme music. The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else.


How about you? Would you be willing to risk it? Say an AGI is possible, and there is a 10 per cent chance it will wipe out humanity and a 90 per cent chance it will usher in a new golden age of humanity. Would you roll the dice? The dice, in fact, are already cast, and we’re just waiting to see what number comes up. If an AGI is possible, then it is inevitable.

Computing power

One thing is almost certain: the power of the computer will continue to advance to unimaginable levels. Before 2050, the price of a computer with the computational power of everyone on the planet combined will be less than you paid for your smartphone in 2018.

When might we get AGI?
Dates from knowledgeable people range from five to five hundred years. There is disagreement on how complex intelligence is. If a machine can trick you into picking it 30 per cent of the time, Turing argued that you must say that the machine is thinking, because it is able to duplicate the capabilities of a person who is thinking. It doesn’t matter, in Turing’s view, that the machine is doing its thinking differently than a human does. The question is whether a conscious computer is something that can be built. Making us believe that it is thinking or that is actually thinking. A bit like our own brain.

Mind trick

The core question is whether or not your brain is a causal system. In other words, is your brain like a giant clockwork mechanism? Did you know that your feeling of free will, that feeling that you are deciding things, comes a few milliseconds after you actually do the things? Your decision to do something seems to occur after you do the thing. It is as if your conscious mind is forever running after your body yelling, “That was my idea! That was my idea!”

Conscious computer

Why would we even consider a conscious computer to be human? Humans are, well, humans. Us. Biological. DNA based, and all that. Why would there even be a temptation to regard a conscious computer as human? It is because humans have never really defined themselves by biology, but by ability. Tool-using is one way we have done so in the past, but there are many others: Use of language. Use of symbolic language. Capacity for art. Belief in justice. Possessing a mind. Able to reason. Laughing. Having culture. Having an end goal. Morality.

The invention of progress

The invention of fire, language, agriculture were catalysts for the change, but that marks the beginning of the story, not the end. Consider the Third Age. The catalyst that brought it about was writing and the wheel. Those technologies in and of themselves were monumental, but the even bigger story is all the changes that they set in motion. Those technologies gave us the nation-state, the nation-state gave us codes of law, codes of law gave us courts, courts gave us lawyers, and on and on. The nation-state also gave us empires; empires built roads to aid the movement of troops; the roads increased civilian mobility; mobility brought about the increased commingling of cultures; and that brought about changes in fashion and diet, which in turn begat other changes.

Things get better

Why did it take 182 years to complete Notre-Dame—but only 410 days to complete the Empire State Building? Because we invented progress, a way to make things get better. “Better” is the key here. That’s the interesting thing about progress. Despite a few stumbles, the overall trend line moves upward. With few exceptions, wherever you pick, at whatever time, things are better today than they were back then. This was also true in 1950. Things in 1950 were better than they had ever been up until that time. And it was true in 1900, 1800, and 1700 as well.

Civilisation and technology
Progress happens because of the symbiotic relationship between two things: civilisation and technology. Civilisation is the infrastructure that enables progress. Technology is the knowledge we use to amplify human ability.

  • In 1994, 1 per cent of the adults in the world had a mobile phone; by 2020, 90 per cent of people over age six will have one.
  • In 1997, 1 per cent of the world had access to the Internet; that number is now 50 per cent. It too will rise to close to 100 per cent.

With artificial intelligence, everyone’s smartphone will have the world’s best doctors in it. And educators, mechanics, therapists, plumbers, personal trainers, dieticians, and so much more. The combination of artificial intelligence, more data, and ever cheaper sensors will be unbelievably powerful. Using technology, we will solve all purely technical problems as well, ridding us of disease, providing abundant clean energy, and tackling the laundry list of problems that we collectively face.

Free energy

Given that technology does that “doubling thing”, it is just a matter of time before one of the dozens of potential sources for unlimited nearly free energy gives up its secrets and begins powering the planet.

No more war

Technology will ensure that the conditions that foster war are vanishing. The lower the per capita GDP in a country is, the higher likelihood for future war, so as we end poverty, we reduce war. The worldwide culture is shifting. We live in a world where economic accomplishments have largely replaced military ones for men.

We are still human

Over two million emails are sent every second. It turns out we all want to say something, and once we were given the tools, our floodgates of expression opened. We don’t just want to express ourselves but engage with each other as well. In addition to engaging, we want to help each other as well. All over the Internet, people help one another with no hope for anything in return.


Would have ever guessed how creative we all are? The Internet has unlocked our creative floodgates. Each second, fifty thousand photos are uploaded to Facebook. Several million videos are uploaded to YouTube each day. The iTunes Store has thirty million songs on it.


The Internet inspires and empowers many to work for a better world. Social action is the norm on the Internet.


Anything you want to know is just a few keystrokes and a few clicks away. Well over 100,000 web searches are performed each second, and at their heart, they each represent a person who wants to know something they don’t currently know.

Caveman principle

Just as the paperless world uses more paper than ever before, one of the unforeseen consequences of the Internet era is that when people meet online, they often end up meeting in person. Therefore, digital introductions become physical experiences.


There seems to be an intangible quality that realness has in abundance that cannot be artificially produced.


No one knows how far all of this can go, but at some point, we may start to wonder where the human ends and the machine begins. We’ve already explored uploading human consciousness to a machine as a pathway to immortality, but what about prolonging our physical existence? All purely technical problems will be solved. Is mortality just a technical problem? I suspect that it is. Lobsters constantly have telomerase activated, and lobsters don’t naturally age. What would it be like if you didn’t age? Well, you wouldn’t be immortal. By one actuarial estimate, you would probably live to around 6,500. That’s how long it would take for some freak accident to befall you, such as a grand piano falling out of a window and landing on you.

Imagine the Fifth Age

Our best intentions were limited by scarcity. There just wasn’t enough of the good things. Not enough food, not enough medicine. Not enough education. But we learned a powerful trick: technology, which can be used to overcome scarcity and can empower a human to move a mountain. However, we must grow our wisdom faster than we grow our destructive power. Read “Thank you for being late”. One person can now destroy the planet.


It is within our ability to achieve such a world, to bring about the Fifth Age, a world of opportunity and abundance for all. We can build that future, and perhaps even occupy it ourselves. It is no longer merely an idle dream but a real possibility. It is no longer a question of resources. It is simply a question of will.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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