Are We Doomed?

The first R-rated movie I saw was 1984’s The Terminator.  To a 12-year old, it was as enlightening as you’d expect, but I’m beginning to believe it instilled in me a fear of the future with respect to artificial intelligence and robots, a fear that is surfacing more lately as articles like this gem, Experts Predict When A.I. Will Beat Humans In Everything, become more numerous.  Apparently, in just three years, artificial intelligence might beat humans at Angry Birds.  A few years later, it might be able to create a pretty catchy pop song.  About a century after that, it may be better than us at everything.

Egads!

I don’t have impressive credentials for predicting the future — in 2008 I bought and sold Netflix shares for $2,700 that today would be worth about $115,000 — but it doesn’t take a talented investor to recognize that jobs in danger of disappearing within a couple decades include drivers, warehousers, manufacturers, janitors, and landscapers…

Google “jobs that AI will replace” and you’ll see there are many other professions, including white-collar jobs such as tax preparers, at risk of obsolescence.  So, it’s as good a time as any to ask this pertinent question:

…is automatic machinery, driven by limitless power, going to leave on our hands a state of chronic and increasing unemployment? Is the machine that turns out wealth also to create poverty? Is it giving us a permanent jobless class? Is prosperity going to double back on itself and bring us social distress?

“Great question, sir!” I might have said to the insightful source of those questions, Secretary of Labor Jim Davis, way back in 1927, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fine, so technology has disrupted the work force for a very long time, people have fretted about it, yet human labor has thrived because we find things to do that machines can’t yet accomplish.  When tractors and other machines made farming more efficient, farm workers found employment in factories.  When video cameras enabled movie-making, we lost the traveling theater, but we gained teenage movie theater employees (theater associates?).  When we developed the worldwide web, we lost pesky trained journalists, but we gained legions of fake news bloggers.  Hooray?

One might be tempted to say, then, “The human appetite for stuff is so vast, that we will always think of new things to want and to do, and therefore there will be new products and services for people to supply.”  That’s what we’ve seen in the last 100+ years.

Microphone: dropped.

But it’s different this time, because the “for people to supply” part of that argument – the important part – is unlikely to be true in the future.

Take professional drivers, for example. When approximately 4 million U.S. bus, taxi, and truck drivers lose their jobs, 10,000 highly-paid software engineers at Uber, Lyft, and Google will have replaced them over time.  The 4 million displaced drivers will just have to do something else.

Like construction! There’s always a need for construction workers, right?  Oh, wait, a new brick-laying machine can lay 6 times as many bricks as a human laborer.  Goodbye all ye human bricklayers!

“Who cares?  Construction sucks!” the former drivers might say, “We’ll become landscapers, instead!”  But they’ll soon find out that iRobot and its competitors are developing terrifying robot lawnmowers.  Why pay $1,000 per summer for a landscaping crew for 10 years, when you can buy an automated lawnmower for $1,000 that lasts 20?  How about if that machine can dethatch and aerate your lawn, too? Sounds good to me!

So landscaping is out.  Manufacturing?  Ugh.

How about waiting tables?  One can always count on the services industry, as long as it’s not this Korean BBQ restaurant in California, which just rolled out robotic servers.  I’m not kidding.

Granted, robotic wait-staff lacks the human touch that many people might like about their favorite restaurant — where everyone knows their name.  But what if it didn’t lack a human touch?  In the future, it’s not going to.

Robotics, artificial intelligence, speech recognition, and machine learning will continue to develop to the point where it’s hard for a person to tell the difference between human and machine – think the operating system in the movie Her, which was expertly empathetic, combined with the physical abilities and beauty of the robots in the film Ex Machina.  With error-free, lifelike robots at our service, produced at scale by a handful of large companies, the value of human labor will be, well, low.

Further, if humans do indeed think of additional wants and needs that can only be provided by other humans and are demanded highly enough to create a large labor force, how long before those handful of powerful robotics companies automate those products and services, too?  Beyond that, how long will it be before programs build programs?  Then, not even some of our highest paid professions – software developers – will thrive.

I’m not anxious about the future because I believe that machines will turn against us, Terminator-style.  I’m worried that they’ll be better at us at everything, relegating the vast majority of us into consumers, assuming we can get past the social upheaval associated with relatively sudden mass joblessness.  In my 20s, maybe I would have been excited about being a consumer, but in my 40s, when life isn’t quite as “new” as it once was, this strikes me as problematic.  Many studies link happiness to productivity, and I’m afraid that, before we know it, we’re going to lose a sense of productivity and purpose, as we spend most of our days being entertained and served.  I’m uneasy thinking about where that might lead us.

 

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5 Comments on "Are We Doomed?"

  1. Interesting piece. This is the sort of thing that makes my head hurt as I try to figure out the logical progression as robot labour takes over from humans. I can’t see more than 10% of human jobs being safe if what they say about eventual advances in AI and robotics are true. I would imagine that there would come a point that when unemployment peaked, consumer demand would collapse and bankrupt the companies relying on robot labour as well the the companies supplying them. I can’t foresee a future where they hand out cars and other consumer goods for free. What would happen then?, I don’t know thats for sure. The other possibility is that as unemployment grows, wages decrease to a point that even with the greater efficiency of robots it is still cheaper to employ 100 humans to do the same job than it is to pay the energy, maintenance and system update costs for the robot. Both would coexist, with the robot providing the deterrant to any future demands for improved conditions leaving most humans in much reduced circumstances. Personally I think that once our leaders have advanced military robots at their disposal we are all pretty much stuffed. On the other hand of course we could see something entirely different, where the voting public demands that the placement of robots is heavily restricted, I suppose this is why it has been such a rich seam for SF writers to mine.

    John Seymour who was the leader of the 70’s self sufficiency movement once said something along the lines of “Progress is simply the action of moving from one point to another, it doesn’t necessarily mean that things get better”. I think people do tend to forget that.

  2. Here are some things that can keep us in check:

    – It is inherent in us to want to use our own brains to create, discover, learn, teach, and solve things ourselves. There are things that we are happy to let A.I. do for us, but using our own brainpower preserves our mental health. Sudoku is here to stay.

    – Creative expression is as much about the process as it is about the end result. Writers, artists, musicians, entertainers, gardeners, cooks, decorators, and so on, whether professional or at home, will always have a need to express those talents. A.I. cannot do it for them. Further, there is no A.I. equivalent to the inspiration that leads us to create and to feel the human emotion that results. There will always be people willing to pay for humanly authored creations.

    – We need to get physical. In order to be healthy we must move. Robots cannot do that for us. So, we exercise, we take on projects ourselves, and we engage in activities that push our physical limits.

    – Not everyone can afford it. A.I. and robots cost money. There will always be a need for other options.

    – Not everyone wants it. While some restaurants and retailers may replace people with robots, there are always people who will demand personalized service. The ideal is establishments that offer whatever experience is right for you.

    What we most need is unconditional love, kindness, and selflessness to become the focus of the conversation. We need to make that more important than materialism and consumption. All our intelligence, human and A.I., should be put to eliminating poverty and hunger, curing disease and mental illness, protecting the earth and her resources, better education, and safety.

  3. Here are some things that can keep us in check:

    It is inherent in us to want to use our own brains to create, discover, learn, teach, and solve things ourselves. There are things that we are happy to let A.I. do for us, but using our own brainpower preserves our mental health. Sudoku is here to stay.

    Creative expression is as much about the process as it is about the end result. Writers, artists, musicians, entertainers, gardeners, cooks, decorators, and so on, whether professional or at home, will always have a need to express those talents. A.I. cannot do it for them. Further, there is no A.I. equivalent to the inspiration that leads us to create and to feel the human emotion that results. There will always be people willing to pay for humanly authored creations.

    We need to get physical. In order to be healthy we must move. Robots cannot do that for us. So, we exercise, we take on projects ourselves, and we engage in activities that push our physical limits.

    Not everyone can afford it. A.I. and robots cost money. There will always be a need for other options.

    Not everyone wants it. While some restaurants and retailers may replace people with robots, there are always people who will demand personalized service. The ideal is establishments that offer whatever experience is right for you.

    What we most need is unconditional love, kindness, and selflessness to become the focus of the conversation. We need to make that more important than materialism and consumption. All our intelligence, human and A.I., should be put to eliminating poverty and hunger, curing disease and mental illness, protecting the earth and her resources, better education, and safety.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Rob. It makes my head hurt, too, since there are so many possibilities to sort through. One of my friends, who is deep into the tech world, thinks a possible solution might involve a combination of merging with machines, increased altruism, the minimum livable wage, and…space colonization, all of which might be disruptive enough. We’ll find out soon enough, I guess.

  5. Here are some things that can keep us in check:

    It is inherent in us to want to use our own brains to create, discover, learn, teach, and solve things ourselves. There are things that we are happy to let A.I. do for us, but using our own brainpower preserves our mental health. Sudoku is here to stay.

    Creative expression is as much about the process as it is about the end result. Writers, artists, musicians, entertainers, gardeners, cooks, decorators, and so on, whether professional or at home, will always have a need to express those talents. A.I. cannot do it for them. Further, there is no A.I. equivalent to the inspiration that leads us to create and to feel the human emotion that results. There will always be people willing to pay for humanly authored creations.

    We need to get physical. In order to be healthy we must move. Robots cannot do that for us. So, we exercise, we take on projects ourselves, and we engage in activities that push our physical limits.

    Not everyone can afford it. A.I. and robots cost money. There will always be a need for other options.

    Not everyone wants it. While some restaurants and retailers may replace people with robots, there are always people who will demand personalized service. The ideal is establishments that offer whatever experience is right for you.

    What we most need is unconditional love, kindness, and selflessness to become the focus of the conversation. We need to make that more important than materialism and consumption. All our intelligence, human and A.I., should be put to eliminating poverty and hunger, curing disease and mental illness, protecting the earth and her resources, better education, and safety.

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