Connecting Celtic ruins, Porto, and God of War
What humanity will think about when intelligence is cheap.
Quick note: yes this is another AI post, and maybe you signed up for startup advice or fintech thoughts. Sorry about that!
I walk around with a few things kicking around in my brain at all times. Every once in a while, those things come together in a way that feels additive, like a flash of insight.
Yesterday I was walking around in these 1st century B.C. Celtic ruins in Spain imagining the lives of the 3,000 people that used to live here when I had one of these moments.
The people who lived here likely had to put quite a bit of energy into securing their food supply and staying safe from other people. After all, they built their village on top of a mountain with 360 degree views, when it would be a lot more convenient not to have to live at the top of a mountain.
Porto and the Industrial Revolution
Of course, thinking about how people spend their time got me thinking, as I do every day these days, about AI and what will happen if we don’t need smart people to think hard about things they’d rather not think about. If we don’t need as many lawyers’ brains to think about boring contracts, and we don’t need as many software developers’ brains to write enterprise integrations, what happens?
Just 120 kilometers south of these Celtic ruins lies the next step in yesterday’s chain of reasoning. The city of Porto is a topographic wonder—a sparkling city built into a canyon with enough ornate tile to have kept hundreds of master tile workers busy their whole lives for generations.
The reason that Porto has so much tile is directly attributable to the Industrial Revolution.
Technological advancements: Improvements in kiln technology and the development of new techniques for producing and decorating tiles made it easier and more cost-effective to create high-quality azulejo tiles.
Urbanization: The Industrial Revolution led to a significant growth in cities and urban areas. As Porto expanded and new buildings were constructed, there was a greater demand for decorative tiles to adorn the facades of buildings, churches, and public spaces.
Accessibility and affordability: Mass production of tiles during the Industrial Revolution made them more affordable, which allowed for their widespread use in architectural design.
Cultural significance: The azulejo tiles became a symbol of Portuguese culture and identity, and their use in architecture and public spaces increased as a result.
I put cultural significance in bold because of how important it is. Tiling buildings doesn’t put food on the table unless people value them.
Our current locus of cultural significance
Here we are at the final piece of the moment of insight I felt looking out over the waters of the Atlantic. What will we (collectively) value so much, that when we have the time, we can pour all of our energy and effort into it? What is the AI Revolution equivalent of Porto’s azulejo tile?
To get there, I’ll start by remembering my childhood. I started learning how to program in 4th grade with my dad’s Apple IIe. Of course, I wanted to learn how to make games. Fortunately for me, it was possible to code up (or copy code from a book) some simple games in a few hours of effort. I could make little choose-your-own-adventure text games and show them to my friends at school.
Since then, games have become a lot more complex. AAA games these days can involve massive teams that include thousands of people from game designers, programmers, artists, animators, and writers to voice actors, sound designers, and more middle managers than even the most ambitious sky scraper project.
So the other day, I was watching my seven year old playing with Bloxels—a graphical coding app for kids—and creating more sophisticated games on his own than I could when I was starting out. I noticed that some of the games he had made had a counter on them of how many times they had been played.
“Wow I said, people have played this game 2000 times?”
He flipped through some screens deftly, and said, “That’s not my most popular game, this one is.” The number in the corner of the thumbnail was over 20,000.
As soon as he has AI tools to help create assets and environments based on his simple descriptions of what he wants, he’ll be able to create really sophisticated games by himself.
But all those people that enjoyed collaborating on those giant AAA games will still want to do so—albeit not by doing some of the things they previously had to do like managing asset pipelines or manually building shaders.
This media entertainment, this creation of worlds for us to passively watch (Game of Thrones anyone?), or games for us to explore in groups or by ourselves (Final Fantasy XIV and God of War as examples), already have global cultural significance.
And sure, extrapolating this causes me to have visions of everyone plugged into the matrix, or living in the hellscape imagined in Ready Player One, and I’m not sure I’m entirely excited by a future that’s more about building simulations than beautiful cities. To be very clear, we really need to make sure that people continue to have a choice in how they participate in the future, and just as Porto is a shining example of what we can build when we have free time, Detroit is an equally important counterexample of what happens when we no longer need certain labor.
But I do love a good show.
Just as not everyone in Porto was an azulero in the 19th century, so too, not everyone will be a movie maker or game designer during the AI Revolution. For the people that do opt in, I like to imagine a future where they collaborate to build ever more nuanced and immersive digital experiences.
To me, this is much more compelling and likely than the alternative I’ve seen postulated where the AI just creates an endless personalized show/game/book for each person. Especially because, as we saw already with my seven year old with his pride on the success of his game, our desire for status is innate and won’t be quenched by AI generated entertainment.
It’s thrilling how fast this is all happening and I’ve loved watching how it plays out. I’m glad that we already have so many books and movies like Ready Player One and The Matrix that are part of our collective cultural fabric because even without having any kind of ability to govern and set policy ahead of the changes that this technology is causing, we already have a shared understanding of some of our possible futures and the futures we don’t want.
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