Sunday, June 7, 2015

Summoning the Demon

Tesla automobile genius/creator, Elon Musk, called the threat to humanity posed by the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics “summoning the demon.” Both Musk and former Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, see an out-of-control future where robots are so efficient, so intelligent, that not only does humanity become uncompetitive (most jobs go to robots, not people), but robotic excellence literally takes control of… well… effectively everything. Seeing such AI as the ultimate threat to mankind, given the tech credibility of people like Musk and Gates, is this fear of AI shared generally shared by others in the tech world?
Are we going to lose most of our jobs to robots and become idle, useless animals without function on our own planet? “Not necessarily, according to two new entries to the technology-and-labor debate. One is a lengthy cover article in the June issue of The Harvard Business Review, ‘Beyond Automation: Strategies for Remaining Gainfully Employed in an Era of Very Smart Machines’ The other is a study, published late [June 3rd], by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, ‘A Labor Market That Works: Connecting Talent With Opportunity in the Digital Age.’” New York Times, June 4th.
McKinsey sees digital platforms as maximizing matching worker skills to needed services with increasing efficiency. Aggregating performance data with service needs adds more long-term functionality to this digital future. “By 2025, McKinsey estimates, these digital talent platforms could add $2.7 trillion a year to global gross domestic product, which would be the equivalent of adding another Britain to the world economy. And the digital tools, the report states, could benefit as many as 540 million people in various ways, including better matches of their skills with jobs, higher wages and shorter stints of unemployment.” NY Times. 2025? Not that far off, and maybe the longer-term prognosis isn’t as strong?
Indeed, as AI accelerates, it is equally clear that this automated universe is moving beyond physical processing or data-accessible computer controls; it is moving into (becoming?) the knowledge-based world, the “critical thinking/planning and goal analysis” functionality that effectively becomes the “decider.”
In the ‘Beyond Automation’ article, Thomas H. Davenport, a professor at Babson College and a research fellow at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and Julia Kirby, an editor at large at The Harvard Business Review, concede the advance of automation, especially as data-fueled artificial intelligence moves into knowledge work. But, they write, ‘Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever greater share, we might see growing possibilities for employment. We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.’
“They present five different approaches as ‘steps to consider’: step up, step aside, step in, step narrowly and step forward. In brief, they explain, ‘step up’ is to head for ‘higher intellectual ground’ of conceptual pattern recognition in jobs like senior management and consulting. ‘Step aside’ is to use different kinds of intelligence such as the creativity of designers and the empathy of elder care givers. ‘Step in’ is to monitor and guide the machines that handle tasks like automated ad buying and approving loans. ‘Step narrowly’ is to focus on a niche that is unlikely to be automated economically, brokering deals for fast-food franchises, for example. ‘Step forward’ is to build the next generation of computing and artificial intelligence tools.
“Competitive advantage, they suggest, will be lost by those organizations infatuated with technology alone. Automation, they add, is often useful but rarely a game winner for most companies. ‘That realization,’ they write, ‘will dawn as it becomes increasingly clear that enterprise success depends much more on constant innovation than on cost efficiency.’… ‘In an era of innovation,’ they write, ‘the emphasis has to be on the upside of people. They will always be the source of next-generation ideas and the element of operations that is hardest for competitors to replicate.’” New York Times.
Hey, academics writing all this stuff, you may be next. So much teaching could wind up with robots! “Michael Osborne, associate professor of machine learning at the University of Oxford and the co-director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment, says that robo-teachers may one day be the answer [to the swarm of technological complexity filling the educational space]. As Osborne recently pointed out in an interview with The Telegraph, ‘It seems pointless to have a teacher or lecturer standing in front of a classroom statically delivering content that might be better absorbed through online videos, thereby leaving the teacher time to engage with students in a more interactive fashion.’
“Moreover, robot professors might be able to personalize the information that students receive, as well as the types of problem sets or homework they must complete. That might keep the brightest kids engaged, while still making it possible to educate kids having the most problems picking up the material.” Washington Post, June 2nd. “I am your teacher; I will not harm you!”
So let me summarize: for the foreseeable future, near-term, if you are skilled, the way you get work and the kind of work you get might morph a bit, but you will still find solid employment. For the longer term, nobody has the slightest clue, but most of us will be gone by then!
I’m Peter Dekom, and human beings have evolved physically and socially, adapting to every change nature and their own invention have thrown at them, and there is little reason to suspect that evolution will suddenly come to a halt in the face of deeply-efficient robots.

1 comment:

Malcolm Reeve said...

I am concerned that many jobs will be lost to efficient machines - and this time it wont just be factory jobs. We will soon have self driving cars, buses and trucks. Its not so long ago that being a bus driver was an Ok middle class job - now its a minimum wage position. On the professional end, "expert systems" will take over certain functions at least from accountants and lawyers. More jobs seem likely to go that way. It seems like in the West, jobs will be split between service jobs (hairdressers etc) which will be mainly occupied by humans - at least for a while and high end managerial tasks - but with a hollowed out middle - where all the middle class jobs used to be.

Our politicians need to be talking about this and thinking about how to keep people employed and feeling useful. A lot of our self worth is tied up in the question, "What do you do?"