The most vital natural resource by mid-century will not be oil, nor rare metals or minerals, nor even data. It will be potable water. And the most vital question will be: whom can we trust to manage our water?
And forget for the moment the recent water crises in advanced regions such as California and Cape Town. The third world has been struggling with water shortages for decades. “Don’t drink the water” was the tourist’s warning in the 20th century; these days, it may as well be “Good luck finding the water.”
Buzzfeed has a representative story today, about Mexican women who have organized their own system of water trucks in an attempt to patch over their government’s manifest failures in water delivery. Instead of more long-term solutions, Mexican officials have only stuck to the short-term solution of digging deeper and deeper wells to access water, with diminishing returns and escalating geologic instability. Either way, impoverished citizens’ access to drinking water continues to wilt with each passing year. The women featured in the article struggle bravely, but water trucks are simply an inefficient and limited workaround for failing infrastructure such as pipes and reservoirs, aggravated by uncaring and corrupt public employees.
The basic problem with Mexican government officials is the same one as the taxpayer-funded employees of New York’s subway system, or the worst of Chicago’s schools, or your local DMV: They simply don’t care. They don’t care about their official duties, they don’t care about their constituents, they don’t care about anything but their own pay and benefits and to hell with the rest of you. After all, facing zero accountability from the voters or, as long as they play ball, from elected officials, why should they care?
Unsurprisingly, the black market kicks in where the government has failed. Bandits hijack these free water trucks, selling the contents to the highest bidder instead. And as with California in recent memory, rich people have no problem organizing their own private water deliveries. There’s long been two options for delivering goods and services, and when the government cannot or will not do it, the free market then takes over, whether legal or not, and the result is predictable: Those with money may avail themselves at expense of those who have none.
The left and right both champion one solution or the other — socialism vs. capitalism — with all the zeal of Calvinists arguing with Counter-Reformationists. But the fundamental deficiencies of each system can’t be papered over, or answered with glib Bernie Sanders vs. Ted Cruz debates, or handwaved away by faith that “your side” will magically solve everything and the other side is full of baby-killing fake-news liberals or evil gun-toting reactionaries. Government will always be hobbled by the problem of uncaring and/or corrupt public employees; private capitalism will always comfort the comfortable and enrich the rich, and while the latter system is fair when it comes to Maseratis or McMansions, it’s kind of unacceptable when it comes to basic necessities of life, for all but the most stone-hearted Randian libertarians.
So what to do for water shortages, whether in Mexico City or San Diego? Keep putting faith in government officials whose one answer is “give us more money lol” and who only seem to benefit the people with the right connections? Or with private merchants, of whatever legality, who ask the same thing and also only benefit the right people, in this case the rich? Either way, the poor, and increasingly the middle class, must suffer and then suffer some more, right? What to do with the problem of both kinds of players only being out for themselves?
Enter the artificial intelligence decider.
Imagine an AI system taking over decisions over water infrastructure and management. The machines have no dog in any fight, no petty interests to be entertained. They can’t be bribed, they can’t be threatened, they can’t be enticed with sweetheart deals or entry into one or another good-ol-boys club.
“But the AI’s designers and coders *can* be bought off,” you say. Yes, and that is why the AI’s decisions must be increasingly walled off from the interventions of humans and our rapid abandonment of anything resembling civic duty or noblesse oblige. Hell, we can assume at some future point that any further human monkeying with such an AI is by definition a criminal conspiracy; better to have an AI system entirely self-sufficient and maintained by itself and other AI processes.
“But any AI overlord must inevitably calculate that we humans are just a pain in the ass who have to go, and I don’t feel like spending my golden years dodging plasma-rifle fire in the ruins of Los Angeles,” you then argue. It is hoped we can ward off such an outcome by programming for benevolence, or strict adherence to Asimov’s Three Laws, or something…
… because what it may come down to is that we may have no other choice but to trust an AI to take over our decisions. That the alternatives are just that bad.
Public institutions are breaking down across the board in America. Public officials increasingly just feel no duty to anything but themselves and their families and/or cronies, whether we’re talking about the school janitor or bus driver, or Broward County sheriff, or typical U.S. Senator, or, sad to say, the President. All the old ideals of civic virtue and personal morality that made America golden during its Golden Age of 1946-1963 were simply discarded by the Baby Boomers, the Worst Generation, with no replacement but hollow self-interest.
And capitalist systems today exist only to benefit the rich stakeholders; gone are the days of Henry Ford’s feeling a moral obligation to take care of his workers. (Well, the gentile ones anyway; how such good and such evil could co-exist in a single soul is a debate for another day.) The world of people Gordon Gekko would refer to as “players” is an increasingly insular one, hard to break into and, more ominously, hard to leave. Any private-sector water-delivery system might be affordable to use for the middle-class, but the profits would get hoovered up by the world of the already-rich, and that is where the money will stay, forever. The middle class’s money gets skimmed off of every day, and the movement is entirely one-directional. Today’s aristocracy, a few honorable exceptions noted, simply refuses to give anything back to their communities. Gone are the days when even the most rapacious of robber-barons felt compelled to gift us an occasional Vanderbilt University or Carnegie Hall (as opposed to just buying the naming rights of already existing institutions, a la what is now called David Geffen Hall).
Also, it’s not exactly like the worlds of the private sector and the government can’t intertwine, especially if the latter is corrupt. Remember the golden telephone scene from Godfather 2? It showed how Batista considered the government of Cuba, the corporations, and even the mafia as one big family. In countries like Russia and China, as well as countless smaller countries all run by their local Batistas, it’s impossible to tell where government ends and “private-sector” business begins. In America, we used to require our elected officials to at least formally renounce their private holdings but, well, not so much anymore, do we?
As has been true for most of recorded history, people cannot be expected to live or govern virtuously in a population that exceeds ancient tribal limits of roughly 150 other humans or so. Our orangutan brains just aren’t wired for it. In rare instances, a civilization-wide Pax Romana puts our rather limited capacities for charity, patriotic duty, and artistic ambition into overdrive; but these periods, while spectacular, are always limited to a generation or, if you’re really lucky, maybe two. Because these periods must be followed by a Boomer generation that resents their forebears and sets out specifically to tear down what made them almost superhuman. (There is a reason why art history books studiously avoid mentioning the generation that directly followed Michelangelo.)
You can apply the rule of self-interest to any debate, really. Take guns. The capitalists of the gun manufacturers who fund the NRA (because the NRA is a trade group; the biggest unchallenged myth today is that the NRA represents the interests of gun owners instead of gun manufacturers) are only interested in moving product, and both school shootings and hateful paranoia about liberals goose gun sales. Neither Wayne LaPierre nor the people who pay his exorbitant salary could care less if your daughter has to face off with a maniac school shooter, just as long as it makes you want to pick up a gatt of your own. But neither can we really trust our safety to selfish government employees, not when cops from Columbine to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High elected to stand outside and wait out the slaughter and keep themselves safe, not when the well-guarded senators of both parties are more interested in pleasing their donors than their voters, and not when government tyranny, of either the left or the right, is increasingly easy to visualize. If the cops nor the elected officials could give two shits about your safety, or especially if they are actively conspiring against it to further their own ends; suddenly, that 9mm in the nightstand seems a lot harder to toss away.
Or abortion. Both Planned Parenthood and the various pro-life groups are big businesses. Politicians from both sides need the issue as a reliable fundraiser, to whip up the base against Those Horrible People on the other side. Both sides have a vested interest in never resolving the abortion debate, one way or the other. They need each other and their war like Oceania needs Eastasia.
But an AI decision-maker feels self-interest. An AI has no reason at all to govern with anything but virtue, and so may be our only way out of an increasingly arid future of barons, oligarchs and Mugabe-style President/CEOs squabbling over scarcer and scarcer resources for themselves and allied elites while the numbers of middle-class regular people able to ride things out dwindles to nothing.
Or at least, HAL 9000 is our savior in theory. Maybe in a world where the robots run everything, they really may conclude there’s no need for humans whatsoever except as target practice. Maybe any version of Skynet must inevitably give over to murderous rage and enslave and/or exterminate the puny flesh-beings. But even if AI is a crapshoot, it’s a roll of the dice that seems increasingly attractive when the alternatives are all too grim and certain.