Monday, March 6, 2017
Everything Will Become More Intelligent… Except Us
Pounded by populism, hounded by hacking, gamed by gerrymandering and zapped by xenophobia, can democracy survive with one more giant threat: the inevitable attack by AI (artificial intelligence)? What seems to be happening on a global scale is that change is accelerating, perhaps explosively, beyond the average person’s ability to understand and adapt.
This has resulted in a morass of a feelings of global helplessness – life out of control – and a longing for simple explanations, easy solutions and a clear and easily identified body of people to blame for the chaos. Tell people we are going to struggle to find answers among shifting sands… and they will tune out looking for their return to a time when things were understandable… to them. Try to explain the complex workings of science and engineering to oh-so-many Americans versus the easier path of faith and religious belief where God will just handle it… well, you get it.
It is this yearning to recapture an understandable and predictable world that has given populists, from murderous dictators like Adolph Hitler to meandering “spokespeople for the common man” like Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Venezuela’s bumbling Nicolás Maduro, platforms of power and governance. We have now experienced this phenomenon here in the United States, accelerated by declining educational standards in our public schools.
Yet if you think what we have seen here in our own country is extreme, wait until we wake up to a level of automation driven by artificial intelligence, beyond the fully-mechanized assembly lines, the autonomous bricklaying machines, driverless trucks and cars, the automated financial analysis and legal drafting/research systems, marketing-selling analytics and the surgical robots that are already online and functioning… where most jobs have been replaced or newly-dominated by machines that can learn by doing (and can benefit by the learnings of other similarly-situated machines to which they are linked via the “Internet of things).
Oh sure, there will be moments when “old” returns for a moment: coal miners may delight that as China has cut back its output and as pollution standards are relaxed in the U.S., there may be momentary surge in demand for American coal, but even if there is a remote possibility of longer-term need for this fuel source, automation will invade this previously-ignored sector as well. Don’t fool yourself. It’s machines not labor that will triumph under current economics. The folks with the capital to develop and ultimately own those machines will be making the money, and the labor that is no longer necessary will be angrily scrounging to survive.
Our system of a functioning democracy within market capitalism simply was not designed for this inevitability. But we have a populist promising that he, and only he, can make it work for the common man. If he brings manufacturing back to America, is it labor or capital equipment that gets the work? If he restructures the tax code to bring off-shore-and-untaxed corporate profits back to the United States, will that spur the promised hiring frenzy or, as has happened before, will there be a spate of mergers and acquisitions that spawn layoffs in the name of efficiency? As he lifts coal, drilling and mining restrictions and regulations, will global markets buy the additional product and will the new levels of automated extraction equipment be the biggest winners?
At the core of our future is a very simple reality: In the foreseeable future, the vast majority of work on earth will be able to be performed less expensively, more efficiently and perhaps at a higher level of consistent quality than human beings are currently able to perform the same work. Not just blue collar work but some of the most complex decision-making white collar analytics imaginable. Our socio-political systems simply do not contemplate how to deal with a form of income inequality, at a scope we could never have anticipated, that gives the former earnings of work-for-hire Americans (and every other group on earth) completely to the owners of the machines that replaced them.
And yes, even machines can supervise and repair other machines. And yes, Matilda, we even have machines writing pop music without human intervention, creating original artwork and even “writing” compelling storylines that actually get made. Do they still have that heart and soul of a human creator? Don’t bet that they cannot mimic that. After all, so much commercial “art” isn’t that “excellent” anyway. Yes, artificial intelligence is a bigger threat than even the creators or the Terminator movies could have ever believed possible.
In his February 24th Ted Talk, historian Noah Harari explains that mathematically, artificial intelligence will, sooner or later, be able to replicate just about any algorithm that defines human capability. He admonishes that we will soon have to deal with a non-working, “useless class,” needing rather total support from society. Harari cites past studies to support his statements: In September 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, published ‘The Future of Employment,’ in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years, and they estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 percent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 percent probability that the same will happen to sports referees. Cashiers — 97 percent. Chefs — 96 percent. Waiters — 94 percent. Paralegals — 94 percent. Tour guides — 91 percent. Bakers — 89 percent. Bus drivers — 89 percent. Construction laborers — 88 percent. Veterinary assistants — 86 percent. Security guards — 84 percent. Sailors — 83 percent. Bartenders — 77 percent. Archivists — 76 percent. Carpenters — 72 percent. Lifeguards — 67 percent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 percent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition and doesn’t produce huge profits and it is improbable that corporations or government will make the necessary investment to automate archaeology within the next 20 years.” How can governments work should this become reality?
The February 25th Scientific American, in its Policy and Ethics section, posted an article with the heart-stopping title: Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence? And its presentation of what artificial intelligent machines can and will do should cause each and every one of us deep concern. “Everything will become intelligent; soon we will not only have smart phones, but also smart homes, smart factories and smart cities. Should we also expect these developments to result in smart nations and a smarter planet?
“The field of artificial intelligence is, indeed, making breathtaking advances. In particular, it is contributing to the automation of data analysis. Artificial intelligence is no longer programmed line by line, but is now capable of learning, thereby continuously developing itself. Recently, Google's DeepMind algorithm taught itself how to win 49 Atari games. Algorithms can now recognize handwritten language and patterns almost as well as humans and even complete some tasks better than them. They are able to describe the contents of photos and videos. Today 70% of all financial transactions are performed by algorithms. News content is, in part, automatically generated. This all has radical economic consequences: in the coming 10 to 20 years around half of today's jobs will be threatened by algorithms. 40% of today's top 500 companies will have vanished in a decade.
“It can be expected that supercomputers will soon surpass human capabilities in almost all areas—somewhere between 2020 and 2060. Experts are starting to ring alarm bells. Technology visionaries, such as Elon Musk from Tesla Motors, Bill Gates from Microsoft and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, are warning that super-intelligence is a serious danger for humanity, possibly even more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Is this alarmism?
“One thing is clear: the way in which we organize the economy and society will change fundamentally. We are experiencing the largest transformation since the end of the Second World War; after the automation of production and the creation of self-driving cars the automation of society is next. With this, society is at a crossroads, which promises great opportunities, but also considerable risks. If we take the wrong decisions it could threaten our greatest historical achievements.”
Bernie Sanders, in his alternative populist message, drew a whole lot of political support using the S-word – socialism. Until his message went mainstream, it was the first time that this concept – long associated by most Americans with the failed Soviet communist state that was our sworn enemy until 1991 – found resonance in a post-WWII America. And since Bernie’s followers would disproportionately Millennials and younger, one would assume that this techno-savvy demographic is smelling the impact that they will be asked to bear as artificial intelligence grows. They seem to be acutely aware that the existing politico-economic systems just do not work when the “big shift” happens… and it is beginning now and will be completely dominant within their working lifetimes. Think of it this way: should robots pay taxes to support those they displace?
So the big question is how we get from “here” to “there.” Violently? Through populist uprisings? Will dictators take control where democracy one reigned? Will machines replace those dictators, becoming a tad dictatorial themselves? Will democracy reconfigure and adapt to make human beings the continued masters of their universe? We really do not know, but we are certain that the systems that we count on today to govern our lives will likewise have to be replaced. And if what we see in the United States today is any measure, all that anger and frustration suggest that the “big shift” will be both painful and violent… unless we wake up and get real.
I’m Peter Dekom, and for those who wish to deny for just a few more years, I’m sure there’s an alternative-fact for that.