As a formal student of history and an impassionate observer of technology I’m very aware of how clichéd ideas and timely panics cycle through our societies. Especially when those ideas stand in opposition to technological progress. I’m used to hearing, and quickly dismissing, fears related to our ongoing developments, especially when they come without factual basis or understanding of the underlying societal and technological aspects implicated.
So keep all of that in mind when I tell you that I’m terrified of the future. Why? Because I’m about to be fired and replaced by a robot. And you are too.
Yes, I’m afraid I’ve fallen off the bandwagon once again, knocked my head, and started to agree with some of the pundits you’re hearing in the press. While I sense most people have no inkling of the huge tidal wave of change that’s coming towards us, some of its effects are already starting to be felt. And yes, I do believe that massive unemployment and a fundamental restructuring of our economies are in our medium-term futures. That includes my job as well.
At this point you might be thinking “hold on, I’ve heard all of this before and it’s nothing but hype”. And there’s a good argument being made by those who believe this future will never come to pass. They claim that in the same way that the railway, car, or tractor led to new jobs and new opportunities for more people, so will our current technological advancements.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that this new-fangled invention, called the printing press, started corrupting our youth and making them stay indoors where they would quickly become sick both physically and mentally. Not to mention how it quickly led to the unemployment of tens of clerical scribes around the world. The 1400s were indeed the end-times by many accounts.
Barely three hundred years later the railways were expected to destroy human societies in every possible way: from scaring cattle into no longer producing milk, to vaporizing humans that would dare go at the ungodly speed of 30 miles per hour. And that’s not even counting the number of unemployed carriage drivers it would produce.
The doom of us all, and of our jobs, was spelt in succession by the bull-powered field sow, the mechanical loom, the automobile, the radio, the washing machine, the microwave oven, the television and worst of the worst, the factory robot. Somehow, despite all of those world-shattering inventions, we’re still here, our societies are thriving and there are more jobs and people around than there have ever been in the history of the universe. So what exactly are you on about, Vlad?
I’d be strongly inclined to agree with that argument if this was business as usual. But as things stand, I’m certain we’re creating something entirely different than what came before. And that something is AI, or in its lesser form: machine-learning, and it will put us all out of a job.
I added all those caveats about my views earlier, not only to praise our technological development and scientific method, but also to show that I’m by no means a fearmongering Luddite. I embrace almost all new technologies and strongly believe that humans, as a species, are and will continue to be far better off thanks to our advancing technology.
But I do believe this time, things will be radically different than before, and we’re on the cusp of a society-changing event. So let me back up a bit and explain.
The only reason why we’re not currently all out of a job is that the tools we’ve created, even the most advanced ones, are dumb. Our hammers have no idea which nails need to be hammered, where the nails should go, nor what the final house should look like. That, and our hammers can’t move by themselves.
Our factory robots don’t understand what they’re building nor why, nor do our particle colliders know which bosons to look for, nor do our cars know where we’re going and how to get there. All of these systems are much more powerful than a human in their respective fields, but they’re highly specialized and need constant human input and interpretation of the results.
But the exponential rate at which technology is now evolving, and the rate at which it is expected to continue to grow, especially in fields like AI and machine-learning, is unfathomable. Our existing tools, dumb as they are, have already displaced jobs. What percentage of the population works in agriculture? We went from almost 100% to less than 10%. What percentage of the population worked in factories a hundred years ago? How about now?
Just a few days ago, Foxconn announced it would be replacing 60.000 jobs with machines. Uber, Tesla, Google and Apple, not to mention all the established auto-makers are creating self-driving cars. Transportation companies are already trialing self-driving trucks, busses, even mining equipment. How many people work in those industries around the world, and how long do you think it will be before the new technologies become cheaper, more productive, safer, easier to use, economically viable? Here’s the shocker, it’s already happened; it just hasn’t happened all around the world yet.
You’ve probably heard, or even experienced, some of these arguments before, albeit on a much smaller scale. That’s because manufacturing and low-skilled jobs have been disappearing from developed nations for half a century now. Whether they’re outsourced to other markets or simply automated, jobs have been, in a sense, going the way of the dodo bird. All the while productivity has gone up and operating expenses have gone down.
Now imagine that same phenomena going on all around the world, at the same time. Jobs would no longer go from the US to Mexico, from Mexico to China, from China to India. They’d just go! Disappear from everywhere - taken over by machines who need neither pay, nor benefits, nor time off. This isn’t just coming; it’s literally happening right now.
And all of this is happening with the biggest piece of the puzzle still missing. And that’s AI, or rather machine-learning, which I’m defining as not just a process but a sort of rudimentary AI, the foundation on which a truly autonomous and understanding artificial intelligence may be built.
Artificial intelligence is different because unlike our cars, microscopes or Large Hadron Colliders, AI is not a tool. AI, and the devices that rely on it, is a generalized, programmable thing – one that can program itself.
AI understands, at least partially, how and why to do things. AI learns and gets better. AI designs improvements and, at one point, it will improve itself. Ray Kurzweil believes this will happen around 2023. His peers doubt that overly-optimistic timeframe, but no one disputes that it will indeed happen sooner or later.
Tools replaced our muscles, or our eyes, or our hearing. AI replaces our brains. In other words, AI is the ultimately generalized tool – it will be better than a human, not only in one but in every field. And it will be imbued into every other tool.
But as mentioned above we don’t need fully self-aware, autonomous, Ex Machina-like artificial intelligence. Even, relatively rudimentary, low-end, machine-learning algorithms are changing the world, and putting people out of jobs. If you think this hasn’t happened yet, or that it couldn’t happen in your profession, you haven’t been paying attention.
Low skilled, low complexity tasks came first: factory-floor workers, shop clerks and other categories saw jobs disappear overnight. Workers in low-skilled, high-complexity positions like drivers or pilots, are seeing jobs disappearing right now with the invention of self-driving cars. It’s only a short matter of time before millions find themselves unemployed in these fields.
High-skilled jobs are also at risk. Every other week we write about advances in robotic medicine, machine-learning algorithms discovering medical advances, and the eventual end-product of an artificially intelligent, omnipresent e-doctor algorithm. One that will, no doubt, fare better and know more than any human doctor could.
You might say to yourself that creative jobs are safe, but they’re not. Machines have proven themselves of being capable of producing music, literature and paintings that humans found pleasing. Machine-written articles, indistinguishable from human-written ones, are being published all the time. Even entire books have been written by machines and are now for sale.
Since a machine costs relatively little, works faster than any human could, 24 hours a day, every day, and samples the entire internet at once, I think I have a legitimate claim on being scared of losing my job. And you do too.
Finally, you might want to argue that we’ll still need people to program these machines – at least until the AI puts us all into the Matrix. And while that may be technically true, I’ll remind you that even today, in some cases Google’s engineers have no idea how their AI reached correct answers. What went on inside the machine’s “head’ is anyone’s guess. With that being the case, humans needed to program machines will soon become a ludicrous concept. And even if it doesn’t, how many people does your company employ in the IT division?
Suddenly millions, perhaps billions of people will not only be unemployed, but unemployable, because there’s nothing for them to do. Sure, it will take a good long while for all the new tech to penetrate globally, and for it to fully replace humans. But it will happen, sooner than you think. And those of us young enough will get to live in this new era.
Society is changing – fast. Faster than it ever has before, and our banana-loving primate brains suck at dealing with large-scale problems. But nonetheless, this is a conversation we need to start having now.
So how does this radical vision of the future match what I said earlier about technology and me not going in for the hype and being a fear-monger? I am, in this matter at least, fundamentally an optimist. If society can get its act together and act ethically and responsibly we might be nearer to a utopia than we’ve ever been.
But things might get worse before they get better, especially if we don’t see that the future is coming straight at us.
Some images via Comcast, Viacom