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How to Avoid Winding Up as Pets for A.I. Robots

A warning: Paul “Pablos” Holman’s vision of the future may alternately inspire or frighten.

Speaking at Fortune’s CEO Initiative conference on Tuesday, the futurist and inventor gave a condensed history of humankind that highlighted what he described as the essentially positive influences of technology. In the millions of years since hominids first arrived, we have been making tools and “inventing solutions to the hard technical problems that kept people from thriving,” he said.

“Some people think it’s government policy or religion or charity or some election, but in fact it’s new technology that’s the force multiplier that gives us the ability to solve these problems at scale,” Holman asserted, optimistically. “It’s the exponent in your equation.”

But technology, for all its promise of salvation, has a potentially dark side too, especially the acceleration of advances in artificial intelligence. “Something really important is about to happen, which is that a robot is coming to take your job,” Holman warned the audience of executives gathered in Manhattan.

“Robots probably should come take over every menial, dangerous, repetitive, boring job they can and do it better than a human,” Holman continued. “But that leaves you with the big question: Then what are the humans good for?”

Of course, Holman knows a thing or two about new technologies. He invented an early pocket-sized personal computer. He advised MakerBot, the startup that popularized of 3D printers for consumers. He even helped Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest person, start Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s private aerospace company.

More recently, since 2007, Holman has been working with Nathan Mhryvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, at Intellectual Ventures, a firm that critics have called a notorious patent troll that makes money from suing others for patent violations. But Holman described the company in glowing terms as a sort of Edisonian research laboratory. Some of its inventions have included, according to Holman, a portable refrigerator for preserving medicines and vaccines in transport, an automatic microscope for testing blood samples, and a malarial mosquito-exterminating laser light show. (That’s to say nothing of the hurricane-suppressing machine.)

Holman’s view of the future puts the onus on people today to strive for more, for lack of a better term, humanity. “Right now we are terrible role models for robots,” Holman said, noting that the supposedly luckiest humans—the lottery winners, as he called them—are failing to ascend past the basest layer on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

“If all goes south and we become pets for robots or grey goo, you don’t get to blame the technology, you blame humans for not choosing what to do with it,” Holman admonished the crowd.

“These are human values problems,” Holman continued. “It’s up to us to decide what future we want to create. It’s up to us to use these tools to become better ancestors.”

In other words, we must apply ourselves and reach ever higher for self-fulfillment, or accept life confined by the machines of our creation, binge-watching Netflix into oblivion.

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