Will the Arts eclipse the Sciences?

Last week I came across this beautifully illustrated article by Auren Hoffman and the subsequent Hacker News commentary. Auren makes the argument that the future belongs to the creative mind, the one whose possessors are able to integrate, synthesize, and create new types of ideas and art, as opposed to the analytical one, which dominates modern industry and which has been the driving force behind the technological and scientific developments of the past two centuries.

I found the notion provocative. It is a possibility that I have considered before, but never grappled with very seriously. The basic question certainly seems like one worth asking: What type of activities will future humans, say a century out, will be engaged in? And what types of minds will be most suitable to such activities? The fact that science and technology so thoroughly dominate modern life should not be taken for granted. While this has been true for about 200 years, during the Renaissance for example the Arts played a much larger role in Western life.

To be sure, our current trajectory at least suggests a continuing increase in the demand for technical and analytical skills. And our civilization is only getting more technologically sophisticated. Yet, the modern era is only a blip, an anomaly in the 200,000-year history of our species and the 10,000-year history of our civilization. It would be foolish to try to extrapolate from current trends. The basic argument made by Auren is that as machines and artificial intelligence continue to get better at analytical tasks, the need for human labor in that sphere will diminish. On the other hand, creative and artistic human talents will remain important, since machines will never be able to replicate that aspect of human intelligence any time soon

Upon some reflection, I’ve concluded that it is in fact likely that the Arts will eclipse the Sciences, but not for the reasons outlined in Auren’s article. It is clear, in my mind at least, that given the current rate of development in computing and machine learning, it is only a matter of time before machines overtake humans in analytical thinking. To hedge my bets, I will say a century, give or take a half-century. In fact, I think it is likely that in 50 to 150 years, machines will overtake humans in all modes of thinking, including the creative and emotive ones. I will venture to say that machines will overtake humans physically too, and will be our superiors in every conceivable respect within the aforementioned timeframe.

Assuming we survive the transition, the implications of this are many, including the likelihood that any “useful” work, by which I mean all activities carried out for the purpose of the continuation of the human species and its environment, will be done by machines. If the objective of any given activity is a practical one, it seems self-evident that it will (or at least should) be done by the most efficient entity for carrying it out. A corollary of this is that the only activities that humans will be engaged in will be “useless” ones. Not useless in the sense that they are unworthy, but useless in the sense that they would have no practical consequence on our continued survival. Useless in the sense that G.H. Hardy used to describe pure mathematics.

We will do things because we want to, not because we have to. Free from defining work as the activity we carry out to survive, we will elevate work to the status of play. Furthermore, because machines will be so much better at everything than we are, we will pursue our passions without regard to competition or excellence. We will have no chance at composing the best symphony, or proving a theorem most artfully, and so that will cease to be our drive. We will engage in things not out of a desire to prove that we are better than others, but simply to have fun, to experience the joy of creation. In such a world, it may seem to not make sense to speak of the Arts as surpassing the Sciences, yet, the creative outlet appears most often as the natural expression of joyful human activity. Analytical play is of course a form of creativity as well, but it will have its place alongside many others instead of dominating like it is today, in the kaleidoscope that I hope will be human creative expression.

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