I had come to my favorite deli to dine with my octogenarian friend Bernard. He had his 20-something grandnephew Delbert with him. My initial discomfort with Delbert has melted as I realized he was a fount of odd conspiracy theories, which I have a weakness for collecting.
"Delbert," I exclaimed as I sat down. "It's been a long time. You've been keeping busy?"
"Dude," he exclaimed back. "You have no idea."
"It's certainly true," Bernard injected, "that I have no idea. This kid has been going on about programmable synapticons and the obsolescence of humanity."
"Programmable neurons and synapses, Bernie. There is no such thing as a synapticon."
"What are we talking about," I inquired.
"Robots! They are no longer on the other side of the globe. They are on the horizon. We can see them, dude, and they are going to make us obsolete."
"This sounds more like a 1970s sort of sci-fi than a 2010s reality," I countered. "People used to talk about robots but that is so passe."
"That's like a half century ago," Delbert pointed out, his math only slightly off. "That's like forever in robotics evolution. And that's the problem. They aren't just about to be smarter than us. They will be just picking up speed as they pass us."
"When will that be," I asked, expecting some vague answer from Delbert. I was surprised by his precise response.
"2042, dude. I'll be like your age."
"How do you get 2042?"
"This guy James Barrat has studied artificial intelligence and he says that the average of the experts' estimate of when we'll finally have a computer as smart as, say, a recent college grad is 2042. And of course then they'll be able to re-design themselves, intentionally evolve in ways that we can't. But everybody is working on this computer. It'll be like having smart college grads who don't get distracted by hunger or relationships or Facebook or bathroom breaks. These things will really be able to work 24/7. IBM, DARPA, Israel, Google ... everybody is racing to create this first because they'll make monster money from it."
"So these are real experts. Not sci-fi?"
"Dude, that's just it. It was sci-fi in 1865 when Jules Verne wrote about going to the moon. 100 years later, in 1965, it was actual science that NASA was just a few years away from making real. Now, you think robots smarter than us are sci-fi in the 1970s and again, about a century later, it will be actual science."
"Wow." It was an inane response, one that would probably take all of two lines of code to turn over to a robot. Still, it was all I could think to say. I suddenly felt like it would take a pull-string doll and not a robot to replace me.
"Which is why they're finally legalizing pot, dude."
"Think about it. They subsidize drugs that make us productive, right? We have prescription drugs that help us to feel less anxious, help us to focus at work. We have drugs that help us to sleep at night so we're productive the next day at work. Those drugs aren't just legal. They're subsidized. They want us to have them. Because they need us to be productive for the economy to work. But drugs that just make you happy without forcing you to first be productive? They've been totally illegal dude. And now they're changing that."
"Sorry to be so slow, Delbert, but what's the connection?"
"The robots are going to do all the work. We won't need to. So we don't need to be productive anymore. And it'll make it easier for them to take over because if we're happily stoned, we won't care so much."
"So we won't have a role anymore?"
"Well, maybe they'll keep us to buy the stuff they make. Robots are just as happy to work. What do they know about recreation, right? Or going to the mall," he chuckled at the vision of robots with shopping baskets on their arms as they shopped for shoes or ripe pears. "So maybe our role will be consumers.You know," he shrugged, "to keep the whole cycle going."
"Or they'll keep us as pets," Bernard interjected caustically.
"Dude," Delbert turned excitedly. "Exactly. There's a guy whose only goal in life is to teach robots empathy so that when they take over they'll be kind to us and keep us as, like, pets or maybe servants. Because this guy - and he's an expert - he's convinced they're taking over in just a couple more decades."
"So what does a person do in this brave new future if he doesn't care for pot," I asked.
"I don't know, dude. Maybe you could play video games?"
Oh, and lest you think that Delbert is making everything up, here's an intriguing video that my friend Damon sent me, suggesting that we will, indeed, be made obsolete about the time today's babies would enter the workforce. If indeed it takes that long.