by John Borst PP Rotary Club of Dryden, ON

If we think it is tough recruiting new members now, what will it be like in a rapidly approaching World without work?

We have all read about the development of driverless cars. The idea is exotic, exciting, entertaining and enticing us to imagine how we might be freed to use our time more constructively while getting from one place to another. But apply it to trucks or taxi cabs, and it becomes a world of the unemployed or even unemployable.

Perhaps the most under-reported story of 2017, is the advances in Artifical Intelligence or Deep Learning which has occurred in the past year. In a recent column, Globe and Mail columnist, Margaret Wente  wrote:

This year, a computer program called AlphaZero (developed by a company owned by Google) was instructed to teach itself to play chess. It learned in just four hours. After 24 hours of playing against itself, it was able to vaporise not just every human player, but also the reigning world computer chess program. It made moves so otherworldly that no mere mortal could fathom them. “AlphaZero had done more than just master the game; it had attained new heights in ways considered inconceivable,” ChessBase said.

A recent CBC radio program described how a computer “algorithm” after listening to a wide selection of classical compositions by famous composers can now write new pieces which humans associate with the very pentacle of the best Classics in history. As an aside this week my 12-year-old grandson took his Christmas gift money and purchased a copy of FL Studio, formerly known as Fruity Loops with which he can create full “beat” compositions.

In another example of AI wizardry, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has two characters who are not real. Shortly, it will be possible to create movies with the images and voices of real actors in which they are not there. How about one starring Marilyn Monroe and James Dean?

Already AI is used to write newspaper reports in the sports pages of newspapers. Journalist’s beware!

Wente reports that “Analysts at McKinsey & Co. estimate that currently demonstrated technologies “could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform.”

AI combined with advances in Robotics is on the threshold of replacing chefs, and surgeons. It is no longer difficult to imagine a robotic criminal attorney arguing with a robotic crown attorney over some arcane point in law.

All of this has lead Yuval Noah Harari a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow to posit a world in which the majority of citizens in a new social class he terms “the useless class.” That is, “people who are not just unemployed, but unemployable”.

Now listen to this brief clip from Harari:

Does this mean that the pool of members from which Rotary may recruit will continuously shrink in size over the coming decades? Or contrarily, will it be an opportunity to grow with the ever-increasing number of useless class participants who have the time and skills to do voluntary work and more importantly fund-raising?

Harari says in the  clip above that governments will have no incentive to placate the masses of the “useless” except perhaps to keep them docile with some “universal basic income.” Given humankind’s penchant for separating the classes, I am pessimistic that they would be useful as Rotary members as they would have no “In” to the wealthy elite of “virtue-world designers” with real giving power.

I suspect that we already live in this seemingly dystopic environment and it partly explains why Rotary is loosing rather than gaining members in the most economically advantaged and technologically sophisticated nations.

The implications of AI, Deep Learning algorithms, and robotics go way beyond simple membership recruitment questions. It will cause us to re-evaluate the very heart of why Rotary as a service organisation should continue to exist and its purpose for doing so.