Grades of Automation

  • Grade-I is tool usage in general, from hunter-gatherer/scavenger tech all the way up to the pre-industrial age. There are little to no complex moving parts.
  • Grade-II is the usage of physical automation, such as looms, spinning jennies, and tractors. This is what the Luddites feared. There are many complex moving parts, many of which require specialized craftsmen to engineer.
  • Grade-III is the usage of digital automation, such as personal computers, calculators, robots, and basically anything we in the modern age take for granted. This age will last a bit longer into the future, though the latter ends of it have spooked quite a few people. Tools have become so complex that it’s impossible for any one person to create all necessary parts for a machine that resides in this tier.
  • Grade-IV is the usage of mental automation, and this is where things truly change. This is where we finally see artificial general intelligence, meaning that one of our tools has become capable of creating new tools on its own. AI will also become capable of learning new tasks much more quickly than humans and can instantly share its newfound knowledge with any number of other AI-capable machines connected to its network. Tools, thus, have become so infinitely complex that it’s only possible for the tools themselves to create newer and better tools.

Grades I and IV are only tenuously “automation”— the former implies that the only way to not live in an automated society is to use your hands and nothing else; the latter implies that intelligence itself is a form of automation. However, for the sake of argument, let’s keep with it.

Note: this isn’t necessarily a “timeline of technological development.” We still actively use technologies from Grades I and II in our daily lives.

Grade-I automation began the day the first animal picked up a stone and used it to crush a nut. By this definition, there are many creatures on Earth that have managed to achieve Grade-I automation. Grade-I lacks complex machinery. There are virtually no moving parts, and any individual person could create the whole range of tools that can be found in this tier. Tools are easy to make and easy to repair, allowing for self-sufficiency. Grade-I automation is best represented by hammers and wheels.

A purely Grade-I society would be agricultural with the vast majority of the population ranging from sustenance farmers to hunter-gatherer-scavengers. The lack of machinery means there is no need for specialization; societal complexity instead derives from other roles.

Grade-II automation introduces complex bits and moving parts, things that would take considerably more skill and brainpower to create. As far as we know, only humans have reached this tier— and only one species of humans at that (i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens). Grade-II is best represented by cogwheels and steam engines, as it’s the tier of mechanisms. One bit enables another, and they work together to form a whole machine. As with Grade-I, there’s a wide range of Grade-II technologies, with the most complex ends of Grade-II becoming electrically powered.

A society that has reached and mastered Grade-II automation would resemble our world as it was in the 19th century. Specialization rapidly expands— though polymaths may be able to design, construct, and maintain Grade-II technologies through their own devices, the vast majority of tools require multiple hands throughout their lifespan. One man may design a tool; another will be tasked with building and repairing it. However, generally, one person can grasp all facets of such tools. Using Grade-II automation, a single person can do much more work than they could with Grade-I technologies. In summary, Grade-II automation is the mark of an industrial revolution. Machines are complex, but can only be run by humans.

Grade-III automation introduces electronic technology, which includes programmable digital computers. It is at this point that the ability to create tools escapes the ability of individuals and requires collectives to pool their talents. However, this pays off through vastly enhanced productivity and efficiency. Computers dedicate all resources towards crunching numbers, greatly increasing the amount of work a single person can achieve. It is at this point that a true global economy becomes possible and even necessary, as total self-sufficiency becomes near impossible. While automation unemploys many as computational machines take over brute-force jobs that once belonged to humans, the specialization wrought is monumental, creating billions of new jobs compared to previous grades. The quality of life for everyone undergoes enormous strides upwards.

A society that has reached and mastered Grade-III automation would resemble the world of many near-future science fiction stories. Robotics and artificial intelligence have greatly progressed, but not to the point of a Singularitarian society. Instead, a Grade-III dominant society will be post-industrial. Even the study of such a society will be multilayered and involve specialized fields of knowledge. Different grades can overlap, and this continues to be true with Grade-III automation. Computers have begun replacing many of the cognitive tasks that were once the sole domain of humans. However, computers and robots remain tools to complete tasks that fall upon the responsibility of humans. Computers do not create new tools to complete new tasks, nor are they generally intelligent enough to complete any task they were not designed to perform. The symbol of Grade-III is a personal computer and industrial robot.

Grade-IV automation is a fundamental sea change in the nature of technology. Indeed, it’s a sea change in the nature of life itself, for it’s the point at which computers themselves enter the fray of creating technology. This is only possible by creating an artificial brain, one that may automate even higher-order skills. Here, it is beyond the capability of any human— individuals or collectives— to create any tool, just as it is beyond the capability of any chimpanzee to create a computer. Instead, artificial intelligences are responsible for sustaining the global economy and creating newer, improved versions of themselves. Because AI matches and exceeds the cognitive capabilities of humans, there is a civilization-wide upheaval where what jobs remain from the era of late Grade-III domination are then taken by agents of Grade-IV automation, leaving humans almost completely jobless. This is because our tools are no longer limited to singular tasks, but can take on a wide array of problems, even problems they were not built to handle. If the tools find a problem that is beyond their limits, they simple improve themselves to overcome their limitations.

It is possible, even probable, that humans alone cannot reach this point— ironically, we may need computers to make the leap to Grade-IV automation.

A society that has reached Grade-IV automation will likely resemble slave societies the closest, with an owner class composed of humans and the highest order AIs profiting from the labor of trillions, perhaps quadrillions of ever-laboring technotarians. The sapient will trade among themselves whatever proves scarce, and the highest functions of society will be understood only by those with superhuman intelligence. Societal complexity reaches its maximal state, the point of maximum alienation. However, specialization rapidly contracts as the intellectual capabilities of individuals— particularly individual AI and posthumans— expands to the point they understand every facet of modern society. Unaugmented humans will have virtually no place in a Grade-IV dominant society besides being masters over anadigital slaves and subservient to hyperintelligent techno-ultraterrestrials. What few jobs remain for them will, ironically, harken back to the days of Grade I and II automation, where the comparative advantage remains only due to artificial limitations (i.e. “human-only labor”).

Grade-IV automation is alien to us because we’ve never dealt with anything like it. The closest analog is biological sapience, something we have only barely begun to understand. In a future post, however, I’ll take a crack at predicting a day in the life of a person in a Grade-IV society. Not just a person, but also society at large.

Author: Yuli Ban

I'm an aspiring novelist with a terminal lack of a life.

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