Minimum Population Size to Support a Hi-Tech Civilisation

I almost finished reading Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford. He argues that robotization and automation will most likely bring systemic unemployment that will require some serious changes in our societies. His argument is very convincing: the Digital Revolution is fundamentally different from the Industrial Revolution and following technological progress. Instead of moving to a newly developed sector of the economy, people will be squeezed out of labour market completely, because the majority of jobs comprise repetitive tasks that machines can and will do better.

While this vision of future does not promise anything good to me personally (I am one of those people whose work can be automated), it makes me go back to an idea of minimum population size required to support a certain technological level. When I touched on this topic before, I did not talk much about a highly robotised civilisation. I suggested that there is a high risk that people will lose knowledge required to maintain the system and it will eventually fail.

 After reading Ford’s book and Iain M. Banks Culture novels, I am compelled to change my opinion. Banks’ Culture is a very sophisticated highly technological civilisation built and supported by self-conscious AI (Minds) and humans. It is notable for its post-scarcity economy, a high degree of decentralisation, and systemic unemployment. The majority of Culture citizens do not work. And those who want to face a very tough competition.There are very much only two organisations that offer employment: intelligence services and a first contact bureau. The Culture manages to avoid stagnation or any serious crisis. On the opposite, they rapidly develop new technologies and win against an adversary that worships war and sees conquest as their sacred duty.

Very High Technologies = Very Few Maintenance People…

If Ford is right we are moving towards something similar to the Culture. Although, he warns that we may end up with an oligarchic dystopia rather than Banks’ communist utopia. While the life will be much more pleasant in the latter than the former, neither of the two will require many people to maintain the technological level. Robots and computers will be doing most of the maintenance work.

We can question the ability of such a civilisation to innovate. Machines lack creativity, thus they cannot innovate. Right? Ford disagrees. His counterargument is genetic programming (GP). Machines using evolutionary algorithms can and do produce unexpected results. Moreover, AI’s solutions can be better since they are free of human biases and preconceptions. Genetic and evolutionary programming cannot be used (yet) for every problem. The algorithms are also very resource hungry.

GP is not a true AI. Computers using it do not have consciousness. Yet, they can do more than humans. And they will displace many people in their jobs. As computers become more sophisticated they may (aтв most likely will) eliminate the need for human workers altogether. No ‘true’ (i.e. human-like) intelligence required.

… and It Is Good News (if Done Right)

Ford warns that automatization, computerisation, and robotization may lead to a dystopian future. The majority of the population will not have a way to support themselves. A lucky few will enjoy the fruits of the technological progress. If consumer capitalism stays the main economic paradigm the entire system will collapse. There simply will be not enough consumers to support it.

Indeed, it is a possibility. However, with the right policies, systemic unemployment can be a great thing. People will be finally free to spend their time the way they want. Perhaps, the absolute majority will procrastinate and will never become productive members of society. But even if just percent keeps creating, dreaming, and striving for something another Renaissance is unavoidable. One percent of a billion is 10 000 000. Ten million is a huge number! And the Earth is a home of more than a billion of people.

Small Self-Sustainable Colonies

Another positive outcome is the viability of space exploration and colonisation. With the current level of technology, self-sustainable colonies are almost impossible. The minimum population required to establish necessary production chains (from equipment to food) is too high. Even if there were an exact copy of Earth in our Solar system transporting 10 000 people and cargo to it would be insanely expensive. And those colonists will not be able to go above the Victorian level of technology without continuous support from Earth.

Robots and advanced technologies like 3D printing are the answer to this problem. Unless something truly catastrophic happens a small number of colonists can build a self-sufficient colony. A colony ship, of course, will need to bring some printers, robots, and raw materials. However, its cargo will never be as huge as one of a generation ship that we would have to use if we were to attempt space colonisation now.

Very hi-tech civilisation relying on robotization can probably start a colony with just 500 people. If genetic engineering is allowed the number can be much smaller. If robots can use artificial wombs, human colonists are not even needed at the first stages. Just transport genetic material and you can raise colonists once all major preparations are complete.

I do know about others, but I am definitely looking forward a time where population size is no longer a major factor in rebooting civilisation. While hi-tech, in some ways, reduced the robustness of our civilisation, it may become exactly the thing to keep it going even in a face of a major calamity.

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