Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Cameras, Microphones and Artificial Intelligence

As driverless cars whiz by, perhaps built using “smart” robots, as traffic lights are controlled by real-time congestion analytics, as the technopundits warn us of the massive human disruption of a larger worker-to-robot transition where skilled jobs are no longer performed by people, we seem woefully unprepared for what we are inevitably doing to ourselves. Our political, social and economic systems are completely unprepared for what appears to be the inevitable. The current income inequality that plagues the nation, placing the vast majority of wealth and earning power in the hands of the richest 1% in the land, is likely to get much worse as those who (used to) work for a living give up their income to those who own those automated systems.
Within a short decade from now, experts are predicting that 30% of the labor force will lose their jobs to technological replacements. As time continues beyond, some of the most skilled workers – from doctors, professors and lawyers – will see serious disruption in their fields as well. While many of these same experts foresee new “human” job opportunities in this artificially intelligent world, they are very short of specifics, suggesting that this prognostication is little more than hope. But there is a price to be paid for ignoring and resisting technological opportunity as well.
I am reminded by the fact that 300 years before the Western invention and deployment of the steam engine which mechanized manufacturing, the East already had that technology. They looked at this labor-saving capacity, and because of complex variables, opted to remain with human hands instead.  Between interrelationship between religion and the craft guilds and a surplus of cheap labor, they decided that this new technology would impose too many undesirable social changes and shoved it aside. That little shift in their social development priorities gave Western civilization, rising from the Dark Ages, the edge it needed to dominate the earth through technological invention and progress.
Those who embrace massive technological change and deploy it well always seem to rule those who do not. Guns literally blew away swords, armor and bows and arrows. Are we caught in a nasty Catch-22? Even human job applicants are finding themselves being interviewed online or by phone by chatty computers with sophisticated voice-print analytical abilities; it seems that such computers actually determine which humans get the available jobs. “Instead of laborious online questionnaires or psychometric tests, some recruiters are asking job candidates to call a phone number, key in a personal pin code and respond to a string of questions posed by a computer. Mind gone blank? Press the hash key to skip to the next question. As long as you don’t sing, rap or simply read aloud, what you say doesn’t matter. It’s how you say it. 
“Human resources departments have long used computer algorithms to scan curriculum vitae to pick out the best candidates for a job. Now, the use of technology is moving to another level… Speech tests are being used by some companies not just for recruiting, but also to assess and train communications skills, judge suitability for promotion, and to gauge employee stress levels. In all cases, nobody — at least, no human — is listening to what you say. But is it truly objective? And what are the risks?
“It works like this. Your 15-minute voice recording is analysed digitally — tone of voice, choice of words, sentence structure — to determine personality traits such as openness to change, enthusiasm, empathy. In a fraction of a second, a software program sums up your character. Charts and diagrams reveal how friendly, status-driven or well organised you are — compared to the recruiter’s ideal profile.
“‘There is no person in the world who would be able to analyse so many aspects of personality, skills and speech in just 15 minutes,’ says Mario Reis, co-founder of Precire Technologies in Aachen, Germany. Their speech analysis tools are used by human resources giant Randstad, transport firm Fraport and vehicle insurance service provider Control€xpert, Reis says…
“The information collected is benchmarked against results previously obtained from a sample group. In a study commissioned by Precire, 6,000 people had their speech recorded but also took traditional personality tests. This allowed researchers to identify speech patterns linked to specific personality traits.
“While the software is ideal for shortlisting job candidates, it is not intended to replace final face-to-face interviews, says Reis. But when it comes to measuring communication skills, he believes speech analysis has the edge.
“‘Precire compares [a voice recording] to the best sales people we have ever measured, to the best leadership guys we have ever measured.  It’s able to benchmark it objectively. That is something that you cannot do in your head. Humans always have a subjective impression,’ he says.” BBC.com, January 9th. Troubling? Get used to it; progress only gets more intrusive over time.
The answer to a livable future lies in our willingness to implement socio-political reconfiguration to accommodate technological change. Resist that change and we will be relegated to the ash-heap of history. Try to shove the ramifications of such change into our existing socio-political systems without fundamental change, and populist extremism will decimate the very systems such populists have sworn to protect. It just doesn’t work that way.
Does this mean violent social upheaval is unavoidable? I’d like to think otherwise, and something my millennial (generation-Y) son said to me gave me hope for a different solution. His generation is now waking up to what has to be done, he told me. Generational change. Though his generation seemed to buoy hopes of populist Bernie Sanders – more an Independent than a Democrat – their political naiveté probably boosted the populist yearnings that ultimately resulted in a GOP-dominated, Trump presidency… well-beyond any Russian hacking and disinformation. You cannot blame your way into a workable society.
But the Y and Z generations are a more tolerant, technologically savvy group and seem to get along within the same factions where their elders do not. They’ve lived through the Great Recession, understand the gig economy, faced unaffordable housing and global uncertainty, and they are rallying. Will they be in time to save us from ourselves? I hope they get vastly more politically active than they have been… based on the real world they live in.
It’s pretty clear that the current American mainstream political parties simply do not get it. The Democrats, dominated by the ideologies of rich liberal elites – see my December 6th What the Democrats Still Do Not Get – and the Republicans, dominated by angry white traditionalists struggling to maintain control, simply are not addressing these issues… at all. Stemming undocumented immigration, deregulating obsolete industries and believing that tax cuts will fix it all are all failed and unworkable policies.
None of these policies addresses the fundamental shift to a world in which artificial intelligence decides the global winners and losers. If we reward only those who own or will own the smart machines that dominate our future without addressing the masses who can no longer count on the economic systems they grew up with, well, you are witnessing the nascent disruptions and rising anger that will only get worse. In a nation with well over 300 million guns, that is a volatile mix. There is another way, and if X’ers, boomers and beyond do not get it, let’s hope the millennials and younger take over soon rather than later and save us and our polarized ways from each other.
I’m Peter Dekom, and massive technological change necessitates that the underlying societies create social, political and economic structures to support that change and their people who must accommodate it.

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