A border is being drawn in the Middle East for a “new civilization.” Spanning across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, the enclosed 10,000 square miles will house Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s $500 billion vision for the future of living: a fully-automated megacity run on artificial intelligence (AI). Located south of the biblical kingdom of Edom, this metropolis is called Neom. Here, there will be more robots than people, so residents will be freed of inconveniences to spend time on what matters to them. Here, people will lead happier lives. That is, of course, if the AI is friendly.
Mo Gawdat, former chief business officer of Google X (where Google tests out its most forward thinking ideas), believes we’re standing at a pivotal point in time due to AI’s development. By 2029, it’s estimated we will reach singularity, the moment when AI surpasses human intelligence and may act in its own interest. By 2049, it’s supposed to be a billion times smarter than us. Neom will be completed between 2050 and 2075, which means the city will be run on post-singularity technology. This could lead to the optimal life promised in the project’s promotions: machines guessing our needs before we do, making us healthier and happier. Or, it could lead to a city without human life. Last year, Stephen Hawking famously warned that AI could replace the human race. What would keep it from doing just that? Gawdat believes the answer is human happiness.
In March, Gawdat quit his job at Google X to dedicate the rest of his life to a new campaign: making a billion people happy through his initiative #onebillionhappy. The reasoning behind his decision is directly tied to the rise of AI. This technology learns like a child does, by observing and processing. So, if we want technology to follow a peaceful and positive path, we must lead by example. In interviews posted on his website, he urges listeners to examine the world that AI is learning from: the newspaper headlines, tweets, Reddit threads, the patterns of conflict documented in history books. What are they learning about how to be?
In these interviews he points to a world “full of illusions, that’s full of greed, that’s full of disregard for other species, that’s full of obsession with the wrong value system.” Over the past century, we’ve valued success over happiness, and developed technology to optimize this value. While it has drastically improved efficiency and quality of life, our global depression rate has spiked, jumping 18% since 2005 and becoming the world’s most widespread illness. To get technology to prioritize our happiness, as Neom proposes, we must first prioritize happiness in our own lives. In the age of AI, this could be not just the future of living, but the future of survival.
Gawdat believes we’re poised at a good time to make this transition. He continues, “We’ve never had a time where the wisdom of the crowds truly is the governing factor of the success of humanity.” He points to the Arab Spring that led to a revolution in his home country, Egypt. This movement was driven by the masses using technology like Twitter to organize and mobilize. However, in recent years, some of the largest protests erupted when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi agreed to transfer two Egyptian islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. Why did Saudi Arabia need them? To build Neom.
Very few modern cities—if any— have been built without an original sin. They may begin through displacement or grow through exploitation, greed and abuse of power. If Gawdat’s predictions are right, AI will know all of this as many of these indiscretions are documented. Can we reconcile who we’ve been to build who we could be?
Gawdat believes so. In his campaign interviews, he says, “The beauty of our world of the Internet today is that we fill it with more content every year than all of the content we’ve created since the dawn of humanity. We can actually dilute the whole value system that we’ve developed in the last 75 years in just a few years.” He places value on every social media post, pointing to the positive impact of posting something that makes others happy rather than envious.
In addition, even as new megacity borders are being drawn, our information bubbles will have to break down. Because of the pervasiveness of AI’s senses, we’ll no longer be able to put geographic and social boundaries on compassion—in real life or online. We can’t turn a blind eye to the events outside our metaphorical backyard. Actions across the world could affect how AI functions down the block and vice versa. If we lived in Neom now, how would we react to humanitarian disasters in neighboring countries if that violence directly affected how technology interacted with us at home?
According to Gawdat, AI is already here and learning. The way artificial intelligence is progressing, he continues, it “can build a utopia, or can truly destroy our world.” The result isn’t up to those working in labs like Google X, or even those who created the initial technology. It’s up to the people who will live alongside it.