3. The Ultimate General Purpose Technology: Farming
Agriculture arose around 9500 BCE in the Fertile Crescent. It arose again later, independently, in China, Central America, and elsewhere. From those places or origin, it spread across the planet. Farming supplanted and almost eliminated our species’ original lifestyle, hunting and gathering: a.k.a. foraging.
The switch from foraging to farming dwarfs all humanity’s other transformations. We still live in the society created by that change, and we have more in common with prehistoric farmers – and with every other settled people ever – than any settled community does with foragers. (My next book, Origin Stories – still in the first draft stage – will explain this transformation.) But farming could soon have a rival.
A 2020 book by the RethinkX think tank argues that new technologies will change our world as much as farming did. The book is Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom. It doesn’t argue that AI alone will transform the world. Rather, the authors say the change will arise out of advances in five sectors – GPTs for sure. They are (i) “information,” which includes AI and other advanced IT; (ii) transportation: robo-taxis, other autonomous vehicles; (iii) food production: replicated and gene-edited meat, crops, and new forms of food; (iv) materials: 3D printing; and (v) energy: green power, advanced batteries, advanced grids. Once these technologies mature, the cost of things we need will tumble so that the average person won’t have to work. As a result, the authors predict a “Coming Age of Freedom.” They warn, however, that we could mishandle the change, leading to conflict and a dark age, which delays or even prevents the Coming Age of Freedom.1Arbib, Seba, Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom, RethinkX 2020).
Rethinking Humanity suggests this change will come by about 2030. I find that unlikely. (The authors don’t explain how we could build several new, massive infrastructures — for renewable power, food production, etc. — in less than a decade, much less in five decades.) But the book still offers a well-researched vision of the future, and our focus isn’t on the timing. Rather, it’s on the magnitude of the predicted change: comparable to farming. So let’s look at the rise of farming and its impact.
The Trap of Sedentism
No one planned the agricultural revolution. That’s no surprise, since it probably made our lives worse, particularly by increasing our work hours. Archeologists think prehistoric foragers enjoyed an easy, relaxing lifestyle and only had to work about twenty hours per week. Farm-fed societies, including ours today, work twice that much or more.
According to one popular theory, farming began when a band of prehistoric foragers stumbled across a particularly rich territory, with lots of plants and game to eat. In that land, they could survive for long periods without migrating, which most foragers need to keep up with their food supplies. In fact, these people found they could avoid migrating at all if they cultivated a few useful plants near camp. They probably already had some of the necessary technology: expertise at encouraging and supporting useful wild plants. They began to improve on those techniques, including by selecting and breeding the most manageable plants: a.k.a. crops. Most likely, this demanded only a small addition to the light hours they already worked, hunting and gathering.
Steady food supplies and no migration meant these people could have more children. So their population grew larger than the usual forager band, which was limited to about a hundred people. More children, however, required more food. So this community had to plant more, further increasing work hours. And that extra food led to yet more people, who demanded yet more food, leading to yet more work: a vicious cycle. The community improved its farming technology along the way. But they could not keep up with the rising population. Eventually, the easy forager lifestyle faded away, replaced by the backbreaking work and long hours of farming.
These first farmers couldn’t go back. Their community had grown too large to survive by hunting and gathering, and they’d forgotten how. Anthropologists call this the trap of sedentism.
Technology and Quality of Life Decline
Farming had other disadvantages. It replaced the walking and athleticism of hunting and gathering with time spent in one place, bent over crops: far less healthy. The food wasn’t as healthy either. Prehistoric foragers ate a wide variety of plants and animals. History’s settled societies, on the other hand, mostly ate one or two carbohydrates: wheat, barley, rice, lentils, maize, and other staple crops. Thanks to this less healthy diet and work, settled people had shorter, weaker bodies than foragers. They also suffered more from disease, thanks to denser communities and, eventually, livestock, which spread disease to humans.
Obviously then, seemingly useful new technologies can bring terrible disadvantages we don’t recognize until it’s too late. That suggests AI and other future GPTs could trap us, just as agriculture did. Experts generally scoff at predictions of AI dominating humans or destroying our species. But the trap of sedentism suggests that concern deserves attention. And powerful GPTs could harm us in ways we can’t now imagine, just as the first farmers could not guess that a little planting would doom their descendants to a far harder life.
The Rise of Violence, Inequality, Poverty, and Sexism
Unfortunately, the farming story has other troubling chapters. Anthropologists think prehistoric foragers lived in egalitarian societies. Migration meant they couldn’t own land and had very little property. So everyone had about the same, and there were no rich or poor. Foragers didn’t have lords or rulers either, since there wasn’t much to manage, and controlling another free-living forager wasn’t practical. Women may have enjoyed relative equality for similar reasons, though that’s debated. Finally, while prehistoric foragers probably killed each other more than modern people, they may have killed less than any other society throughout history.2See “The Least Violent Time Ever? Now.”
Farming led to the rich and the poor, chieftains and other lords, and slavery, which became practical once we had fields to work. And farming probably led to greater sexual inequality. A man with property (even a peasant) has an incentive to control his wife, to make sure he’s the only father of her children, since they’ll inherit his property. Finally, all this property and inequality gave people new reasons to fight, leading raids for resources and slaves and to regular war.
The farming story suggest AI and other new GPTs could divide use in new ways, leading to greater inequality than we’ve ever known. Obviously, if these technologies dominate the world, those who control them will too. And AI plus gene-editing could lead to designer babies, ultimatley creating separate subspecies of humans, some stronger and smarter than others. And new GPTs could lead us down other dark roads. Once again, we can’t now imagine those outcomes, just as prehistoric foragers could not imagine lords, slaves, poverty, or war.
The Spread of Culture and Knowledge
Foragers also could not imagine the benefits of farming. The wheel. Writing and the resulting explosion of knowledge. Metal tools. Palaces, temples, and other great monuments. Philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, sculpture, painting, music. In fact, nearly all literature, art, and technology – including all GPTs discussed in this series – spring from the settled society made possible by farming.
Rethinking Humanity imagines a far better world, with AI and other new GPTs doing most of the work. It’s possible. We could recapture the easy lifestyle of prehistoric foragers but better, with less work or none for most people – or with voluntary work, only on projects we treasure. We could dedicate our time to the arts, sports, our families and friends, and all the things that make life good. And we might find new activities, new joys, no one today can imagine, just as prehistoric foragers could not imagine literature … or scuba diving.
The advances triggered by farming came along very slowly, in most cases thousands of years after the rise of agriculture. So the early farmers did not enjoy them. But our world changes much faster than theirs. We could see the costs and benefits at the same time.
Conclusion: Artificial Intelligence and the GPTs
The history (and prehistory) of agriculture tells us artificial intelligence and other GPTs could disrupt our world on a scale we can’t imagine. The printing press offers a similar warning, though on a lesser scale. More recent GPTs caused less disruption, though steam, electricity, and IT still overturned many lives. We might hope to avoid the disruption by blocking or slowing AI’s development and adoption – or by escaping it, like by living off the grid. History offers little encouragement there. Imagine the Church trying to block the printing press. Imagine Britain’s weavers trying to block steam power. Fat chance. Once the GPT genie seeps out of the bottle, it grows. Plus, a nation or community that blocks a GPT risks being overwhelmed by those who embrace it.
Our best hope is to continue on the current path: control and guide the new GPT, driving toward its inspiring rewards and away from its revolutionary risks. Throughout all those efforts, we should keep studying the record of past GPTs, looking for parallels – looking for guidance on how to ride, channel, and survive the storm.
© 2023 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.
- Agri-Industry Robots, created by the author using generative AI, 2023
- Asian agriculture, by Sasint, courtesy of Pixabay
- Pioneers in South Africa, cropped, Harry Hamilton Johnston, 1914
- Farming with Scythe, by GDJ, courtesy of Pixabay
- Representación de Diego Rivera de la posible apariencia de la ciudad de tenochtitlan anterior a la llegada de los españoles – public domain in the U.S.
- 1Arbib, Seba, Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom, RethinkX 2020).