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In 2016, self-driving cars made inroads in several countries, many of which rewrote their laws to accommodate the new technology. As a science-fiction writer, it’s my duty to warn the human race that the robot revolution has begun — even if no one has noticed yet.

When a few autonomous test cars appeared on the roads over the past few years, we didn’t think of them as robots because they didn’t have the humanoid shape that science-fiction movies taught us to expect. In 2016, they were adopted widely: as buses in the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands, taxis in Singapore, and private cars in the United States and China. There was a fatal accident in Florida involving an autonomous car, which caused some concerns, but this did not significantly affect our embrace of this technology.

Instead of arming ourselves against this alien presence, as some of my fellow science-fiction writers have fearfully suggested, we gawked as they pulled up to the curb, and got in. The driverless vehicles, some of which had no steering wheels or gas pedals, merged into traffic and stopped at stop signs, smoothly taking us to our destinations. We lounged in comfort, occasionally taking selfies.

Machine learning has been an important tool for autonomous car companies as they develop the systems that pilot their cars. Instead of rigidly following programming as an app on your phone does, an AI system can try to learn to do a task itself, using techniques borrowed from human learning, like pattern recognition and trial and error, and may use hardware modeled on the architecture of a human brain. Currently, the AIs’ responsibilities are mostly limited to tasks like translating texts, helping with medical diagnoses and writing simple articles for media companies. But we can expect to see unimaginable progress in this field in future — and the widespread use of the autonomous car is going to accelerate that process as automobile and technology companies invest ever more resources in its development.

© Ramin Rahimian for The New York Times

Let’s try to envision that future. As during every other technological revolution, the robots will first transform our economy. People who drive for a living will lose their jobs — around 3 million in the U.S. alone. E-commerce may experience further booms due to automation, and car ownership is likely to become nearly obsolete as more targeted car sharing and public transportation systems are developed. Eventually, the robot cars could be integrated with other transportation systems. Say that you live in New York City and want to go to China’s Henan Province: You will enter the address into an app, a car will take you to your plane at the airport, and after you land, another will take you directly to your destination.

Robots will begin to creep into other areas of our lives — serving as busboys or waiters, for example — as our investments in robotic transport improve their prowess in areas such as environmental detection and modeling, hyper-complex problem solving and fuzzy-logic applications. With every advance, the use of AI-powered robots will expand into other fields: health care, policing, national defense, education.

There will be scandals when things go wrong, and backlash movements from the new Luddites. But I don’t think we’ll protest very much. The AI systems that drive our cars will teach us to trust machine intelligence over the human variety — car accidents will become very rare, for example — and when given an opportunity to delegate a job to a robot, we will placidly do so without giving it much thought.

In all previous technological revolutions, people who lost their jobs mostly moved to new ones, but that will be less likely when the robots take over. AI that can learn from experience will replace many accountants, lawyers, bankers, insurance adjusters, doctors, scientific researchers and some creative professionals. Intelligence and advanced training will no longer mean job stability.

Gradually the AI era will transform the essence of human culture. When we’re no longer more intelligent than our machines, when they can easily outthink and outperform us, making the sort of intuitive leaps in research and other areas that we currently associate with genius, a sort of learned helplessness is likely to set in for us, and the idea of work itself may cease to hold meaning.

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As AI takes over, the remaining jobs may dwindle to a fraction of what they were, employing perhaps 10% or even less of the total population. These may be highly creative or complex jobs that robots can’t do, such as senior management, directing scientific research or nursing and child care.

In the dystopian scenario, as jobless numbers rise across the globe, our societies sink into prolonged turmoil. The world could be engulfed by endless conflicts between those who control the AI and the rest of us. The technocratic 10% could end up living in a gated community with armed robot guards.

There is a second, utopian scenario, where we’ve anticipated these changes and come up with solutions beforehand. Those in political power have planned a smoother, gentler transition, perhaps using AI to help them anticipate and modulate the strife. At the end of it, almost all of us live on social welfare.

How we will spend our time is hard to predict. “He who does not work, neither shall he eat” has been the cornerstone of civilizations through the ages, but that will have vanished. History shows that those who haven’t had to work — aristocrats, say — have often spent their time entertaining and developing their artistic and sporting talents while scrupulously observing elaborate rituals of dress and manners.

In this future, creativity is highly valued. We sport ever more fantastic makeup, hairstyles and clothing. The labor of past ages seems barbaric.

But the aristocrats ruled nations; in the AI era, machines are doing all the thinking. Because, over the decades, we’ve gradually given up our autonomy, step by step, allowing ourselves to be transformed into AI’s docile, fabulously pampered pets. As AI whisks us from place to place — visits to family members, art galleries and musical events — we will look out the windows, as unaware of its plans for us as a poodle on its way to the groomer’s.


The science-fiction writer Liu Cixin is a nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award, China’s highest honor for science-fiction writing. He is the first Chinese writer to receive the Hugo Award for Best Novel, which he received for his international best-seller “The Three-Body Problem,” a 3-D film adaptation of which will be released in 2017.
© 2016 Liu Cixin
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate