Age of The Robot on The Working Man
AI has its good points but also some that are a little less reassuring. Whether we all have a job in the future is one of them
Elvis Has Left The Building
With the millions in the US who have just lost their jobs over the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the country into near economic meltdown along with the rest of the planet, thoughts of artificial intelligence (AI) taking over people’s livelihoods could be viewed as ill-timed.
And maybe it is, unfortunately.
Yet, one thing nobody can deny is that it’s just around the corner. Automation, the idea that robots and computers replace humanity’s blood, sweat and tears to do the majority of the physical tasks we’ve been accustomed to doing (and being paid to do) from time immemorial in some cases, is a reality we’ll just have to get used to.
Traditional work as we know it, by say the next two decades, will — to paraphrase the immortal words of legendary Shreveport promoter Horace Logan — ‘have left the building’. Allusions to Elvis Presley aside, the threat is a real one.
‘We need a mindset change. That it is not just about minimizing costs or maximizing tax benefits, but really worrying about what kind of society we’re creating and what kind of environment we’re creating if we keep on just automating and [eliminating] good jobs.’
— Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor of Economics
Even Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur spaceman with as many ideas as he has detractors, has called it an
an existential threat
Do we need any more warnings?
Probably, yeah. Because on the whole as a species, humans are as dumb as fuck.
And don’t tell me otherwise.
We’ve destroyed enough ecosystems, bombed enough Cambodian villages and eaten enough fish in the world’s oceans to prove it a fact.
But nobody’s perfect, are they?
None of the world’s 7.7B souls can argue John 8:7, can they?
Let’s just face up to the truth.
We’re a clever species too, no doubt about that.
AI just goes to show it. And the invention of the Internet and quantum computing (QC) and the blockchain and Satoshi’s legacy and for, wait for it, voting in the Trumpster and BoJo, two blond bombshells with too much self-importance and hubris and not enough compassion and common sense.
‘AI will allow us to do what it is that we are uniquely meant to do: to focus on high-level thinking, strategy and paving the way for innovation.’
— Tony Blair, Executive Chair of the Institute for Global Change and Former UK Prime Minister
Political jokes aside, though, what we have created will be, not too far down the line — if we don’t do something about it now — a shitstorm of extreme proportions that the current medical crisis will seem like — how do you say it… a picnic.
A History Lesson
From the beginning, when Homo Sapiens’ monkey-like ancestors, 2.6 million years ago, first picked up stone tools until we evolved into a species that some 12,000 years ago thought sowing the seeds of an agricultural life was a way better gig than hunting oversized hairy elephants with tusks that could cut a man in half, we have strived for betterment.
All those things were eventually replaced with bronze, then iron, then papyrus, then books, then iron again until the magic of steam arrived in the English Midlands in the early 18th Century.
Steam, unfortunately, got replaced by the inventions of the scruffy plagiarizing genius from Menlo Park and his impeccably dressed Serbian.
That spawned computers.
Which gave birth to Tim Berners-Lee’s baby.
The thing is technology, no matter where it is in its developmental stage, has what some experts call the ‘multiplicative effect’: each one exponentially creates other technological niches/movements which make life, on the outset, better.
One technological innovation naturally makes way for another, that is the modality of it until we reach what can be called the ‘current apotheosis’.
Today, we are at the crux of the greatest epoch ever seen on the planet. Along with computers that have been with us in different forms of advancement now for nearly 80 years, we have seen other technological advancements like AI, VR, quantum computing, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies come into their own over the last decade. The first, though, AI, looks like it will take centre stage, especially about how it is used in conjunction with people’s lives and the work they do.
Robotics and automation, working alongside AI, could — if current trends in technology continue — take over many people’s jobs in the future, no matter what the level of skills and education are required by the humans that do them.
The automotive industry, as an example — already sinking in some countries — could see factories solely controlled by robots, people an extraneous annoyance to the ultimate goal of ROI.
This can be both a good and a bad thing.
Good in that it will free us up to do more of the things we enjoy.
‘One of the most essential elements of human wisdom at its best is humility, knowing that you don’t know everything. There’s a sense in which we haven’t learned how to build humility into our interactions with our devices. The computer doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.’
— Mary Catherine Bateson
Bad because paid employment could be a rarity, leaving many without money to buy the essentials like food and shelter.
AI will be, many experts in the space believe, something that will change the way people work forever. One thing that is sometimes overlooked, however, is the support infrastructure needed to get the AI technology up and running.
This could — if the AI systems are not able to undertake those kinds of ancillary tasks successfully — all be done by humans, a good thing.
But some technologists believe AI systems will be able to self replicate. This means they will be able to produce newer, more efficient replications of themselves. Such systems, rather at the elementary stage at the moment, already exist at places like Google.
This equates to even professions that traditionally demand a high level of skill and knowledge like surgeons could be replaced by AI systems.
Currently, we do not know how long this could take. Some experts believe it will be a slow transition; others much more quickly. With unemployment on the rise (exacerbated by the black swan event of the COVID-19 outbreak) and social ills like homelessness, the mass roll-out of AI systems for too many people could be viewed as a destroyer of our way of life.
A report by American market research company Forrester in 2016, claimed that by mid-decade ‘AI will replace 7% of US jobs.
Although the report is a few years old, it is still a scary thought and brings to light some pertinent worries. Seven percent is a large chunk of change. Add to that the current economic climate, things are not looking too rosy for us humans.
We will have to retrain, find niche job markets where AI is less of a threat to our ability in earning money.
Most of those jobs, by current trends at least, look like they will be in professions demanding higher education, as in the STEMS fields.
One way to offset this problem would be by introducing the universal basic income (UBI). Already Spain is thinking about rolling it out, at least during the hard times of the coronavirus crisis.
Another could be capping a person’s salary, though this would upset many people who view their professions as equal to receiving a greater financial reward.
The final solution, already touted in some quarters, is a robot tax on those companies that profit from the mass use of AI systems in their businesses, Amazon being one of the prime examples of this.
As the Chinese say, ‘we live in interesting times’. And it is true. With all that is negative happening at the moment in the world, we do not need AI to overhaul humanity's efficacy just to line the pockets of the hundreds of billionaire CEOs across the globe who own companies where AI could cut production costs by not hiring flesh and blood.