By Kabeia Rineaki Brock Sutton Allen
If futurists of the 70s were to be not only believed but also accurate, our world would be a colorful but dangerous landscape filled with rockets casually blasting off to martian colonies while personal jet-packs jockeyed in traffic with nuclear cars, zipping around domed mega-cities. To the chagrin of retro-futurist such as myself, such a horizon has failed to present itself in all of its glory and hazard. In that same sense, while the techno-optimism of the past did not foresee how slow change was to come the techno-pessimists of today will face equal disappointment. While a future filled with Artificial Intelligence(s) and Automation* may terrify the average consumer of Science Fiction- it will instead be one where unanticipated demands are fulfilled, fueled by the unstoppable momentum of progress, leading ultimately to either positive improvements or surprising mediocrity.
The Immigrant Robots Coming For Your Jobs
Change is constant. We don’t accumulate thousands of years of culture, layered with unrelenting innovation, without realizing the social, economic, and political flux it ignites. Yet despite the pounding of the machine of civilization, reactionaries and cynics lurk behind every historical corner. There is always another Thomas Robert Malthus trying to rain on the parade of progress, sermonizing of a new apocalypse coming to destroy our world, lives, or in this case our livelihoods.
The oft beat drum of those singing such pessimistic tunes is the assumed loss of jobs. Doomsayers consistently cite narrowly interpreted statics from the 2013 Oxford Martin School paper reporting “Of the 702 job categories examined, 47% were susceptible to automation within the next 20 years” and the National Bureau of Economic Research 2017 recounting “In the US between 1990 and 2007, the addition of each robot into manufacturing industries resulted in the loss, on average, of 6.2 human jobs.” (Dunlop)
In his seminal TED Talk at Cambridge, MIT Professor David Autor waves off such handwringing, “These predictions strike me as arrogant. These self-proclaimed oracles are in effect saying, ‘If I can't think of what people will do for work in the future, then you, me and our kids aren't going to think of it either.’ I don't have the guts to take that bet against human ingenuity. Look, I can't tell you what people are going to do for work a hundred years from now. But the future doesn't hinge on my imagination.” (Autor)
Complete automation which is rare does reduce employment, but partial automation which is the norm actually increases employment (Bessen). “This is what happened when weaving technology advanced during the Industrial Revolution, for instance. The price of cloth dropped, more people bought cloth, and factories hired more people to keep up with demand—even though each worker could, with the help of machines, be much more productive.” (Kessler)
Joss Fong of Vox explains how this effect compounds “... the part we tend to forget is the indirect effect of labor-saving inventions. When companies can do more with less, they can expand, maybe add new products or open new locations, and they can lower prices to compete. And that means consumers can buy more of their product, or if we don’t want any more of it, we can use the savings to buy other things. Maybe we go to more sports events or out to dinner more often. Maybe we get more haircuts or add more day-care for the kids. This process is how our standard of living has improved over time and it’s always required workers. [Heidi Shierholz (Economic Policy Institute):] ‘The key economic logic here is automation does indeed displace workers who are doing work that got automated, but it doesn't actually affect the total number of jobs in the economy because of these offsetting effects.’ Warnings about the “end of work” tend to focus on [jobs before Higher Productivity] and not all of this [after]” (Fong)
The Demand For Automation
In the end, jobs won’t be generated out of thin air, they’ll be created according to the needs of business owners and innovators who will take advantage of the technology and opportunities they afford. All that it takes is one sweaty employee or frustrated employer to stand up from some backbreaking or tedious task and say “there’s got to be an easier way to do this.”
The Verge wrote about a Cranberry Farm that was had been able to weather harsh times with the help of robotic assistants. “Despite the drought and competition from other growers, Mann [the farmer] says that his farm is on track to bring in a record harvest. Part of the solution is for farmers to optimize their farms as much as possible and to collect as much data as possible to guide decisions when it comes to production, Mann says.” (Liptak) The MIT Technology Review believes such a relationship will continue to beneficial if not commonplace. The article details, “Drones can provide farmers with three types of detailed views. First, seeing a crop from the air can reveal patterns that expose everything from irrigation problems to soil variation and even pest and fungal infestations that aren’t apparent at eye level. Second, airborne cameras can take multispectral images, capturing data from the infrared as well as the visual spectrum, which can be combined to create a view of the crop that highlights differences between healthy and distressed plants in a way that can’t be seen with the naked eye. Finally, a drone can survey a crop every week, every day, or even every hour. Combined to create a time-series animation, that imagery can show changes in the crop, revealing trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management.” (Anderson)
Having worked on a farm, I know that checking such vast swaths of cropland in such detail would require strenuous and excruciating effort. These jobs but as mere mortal individuals we would not want because they would but also because they would bore us out of our minds. Leaving one to ask, do we even want these jobs? This is the entry point we’ll most likely witness automation sleep through- mind-numbing tasks automated to bring about a subtle shift in labor.
The Monster Already At The Gate
While Skynet remains a distant dream, China is quietly preparing the ”Construction of a Social Credit System” in order to audit the loyalty or threat of its citizenry (Botsman). Though there is still some time until you need to flee hordes of murderous bots drones continue to grow in their fielding by the increasingly militaristic law enforcement agencies and departments throughout the nation (Margaritoff). And notwithstanding the seeming impossibility of a world ran by an Artificial Intelligence we’ve already given them a foot in the door by allowing them to influence courts responsible with convicting criminals (Tashea). When you couple that with examples like Palantir that armed the New Orleans Police Department with Minority Report style predictive police technology you a lethal combination of systems capable of ranking, predicting, and pursuing the conviction of people before they even do anything (Winston). Actually, this isn’t even Frankenstein’s monster that we’ve created, this is an angry god.
And the timing is nothing short of terrible. Recently its been determined that worshiping gods is an instinctive reflex built into our cognitive core. “Cognitive scientists talk about us being born with a “god-shaped hole” in our heads. As a result, when children encounter religious claims, they instinctively find them plausible and attractive, and the hole is rapidly filled by the details of whatever religious culture they happen to be born into. When told that there is an invisible entity that watches over them, intervenes in their lives and passes moral judgement on them, most unthinkingly accept it. Ditto the idea that the same entity is directing events and that everything that happens, happens for a reason.” (Lawton) Of course some people already ahead of the curve, which is why you have strangely charismatic individuals like Google’s Anthony Levandowski starting Way of the Future, the first AI Church (Harris).
Too Big to Fail
Like the banks of the early 2000s, AIs seemed poised to take a position that makes them too big to fail. Their construction grows progressively complex and their ability to further entrench themselves into society increases exponentially. Edd Gent wrote of their creation, “A long-standing problem in AI research has been the fact that deep neural networks are “black boxes.” You can’t tell how these algorithms work just by looking at their code. They teach themselves by training on data and there’s no simple flow diagram a human can follow. The way these networks reach decisions is encoded in the weights of thousands of simulated neurons.” (Gent) Metz explained in further detail, “In building a neural network, researchers run dozens or even hundreds of experiments across a vast network of machines, testing how well an algorithm can learn a task like recognizing an image or translating from one language to another. Then they adjust particular parts of the algorithm over and over again, until they settle on something that works. Some call it a “dark art,” just because researchers find it difficult to explain why they make particular adjustments… This is also a way of expanding the number of people and businesses that can build artificial intelligence. These methods will not replace A.I. researchers entirely. Experts, like those at Google, must still do much of the important design work. But the belief is that the work of a few experts can help many others build their own software.” (Metz)
This is the most essential part- the need for the human touch, and it’s cited by most industry experts. “Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google and its parent company Alphabet, has said he believes AI technology is developing so quickly it may soon turn against humans. ‘All the movie-inspired death scenarios... I can confidently predict to you that they are one to two decades away,’ Mr Schmidt told a security conference in Munich… ‘It is advisory, it makes you smarter and so forth, but I wouldn’t put it in charge of command and control.’”
If Not Us, Who?
Automation and Artificial Intelligence are at their roots, nothing more than mere tools. Humanity has been crafting, using, and abusing tools since before written language. Arguably the most critical of these tools has been fire, a device and force of nature synonymous with potential for progress and destruction. The fact that we’ve gone thousands of years without having burned out (pun intended) with the help of any of toys we have at hand seems to indicate an optimistic trend. Is there great potential for destruction with the power we might lend to our digital offspring? Yes. But every step of the way will be the ultimate protectors of humanity’s interests- us.
This is the most critical and, yet again, a neglected aspect with automation and artificial intelligence: If we don’t embrace and control these systems they are certainly going to employed against us by authoritarian governments and rogue actors.
A report titled “The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation” was published with 26 contributors from institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale universities which “details how new AI technology could maliciously affect digital, physical and political security over the next five years.” Such threats included but were not limited to:
Automation of social engineering attacks
More sophisticated automation of hacking – AI is used (autonomously or in concert with humans) to improve target selection and prioritization, evade detection, and creatively respond to changes in the target’s behavior. Autonomous software has been able to exploit vulnerabilities in systems for a long time , but more sophisticated AI hacking tools may exhibit much better performance both compared to what has historically been possible and, ultimately (though perhaps not for some time), compared to human.
Terrorist repurposing of commercial AI systems – Commercial systems are used in harmful and unintended ways, such as using drones or autonomous vehicles to deliver explosives and cause crashes.
Endowing low-skill individuals with previously high-skill attack capabilities – AI-enabled automation of high-skill capabilities — such as self-aiming, long-range sniper rifles – reduce the expertise required to execute certain kinds of attack.
Swarming attacks – Distributed networks of autonomous robotic systems, cooperating at machine speed, provide ubiquitous surveillance to monitor large areas and groups and execute rapid, coordinated attacks.
Attacks further removed in time and space – Physical attacks are further removed from the actor initiating the attack as a result of autonomous operation, including in environments where remote communication with the system is not possible.
State use of automated surveillance platforms to suppress dissent – State surveillance powers of nations are extended by automating image and audio processing, permitting the collection, processing, and exploitation of intelligence information at massive scales for myriad purposes, including the suppression of debate.
Fake news reports with realistic fabricated video and audio – Highly realistic videos are made of state leaders seeming to make inflammatory comments they never actually made.
Automated, hyper-personalised disinformation campaigns – Individuals are targeted in swing districts with personalised messages in order to affect their voting behavior.
Manipulation of information availability – Media platforms’ content curation algorithms are used to drive users towards or away from certain content in ways to manipulate user behavior.” (“The next 5 Years Could Be Very Bleak According to a New Report on Malicious AI.”)
Now, ignore for a second all the promises of productivity and safety that automation and AI offers. Not only do we have nothing to gain from ignoring or avoiding opening the proverbial Pandora’s Box- we actually risk being ignorant of and unable to preempt such attacks. If the robot uprising is assumed to be a inevitability then the best way for us to understand this eventual enemy is to get closer and understand them. And we can’t accomplish this by burying our heads in the sand.
If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em.
Even if the sky were to begin falling there still remains one final stand for most optimists. Assuming AI and Automation runs rampant to the point of escaping human control the last resort is to conversion from meat puppets to digital equals. As Ryan Browne of CNBC details, Elon Musk, the most concerned, most public, techno-optimist still holds out hope despite his dire premonitions, “Musk believes that humans should merge with AI to avoid the risk of becoming irrelevant. He is the co-founder of Neuralink, a start-up that reportedly wants to link the human brain with a computer interface.” (Browne) Such transhumanist pipedreams might be easily waved away as unrealistic but the same could be said for the conditions that would require such a solution. That is to say, the likelihood of conscious digitizing is arguably as unlikely as the robot uprising. What actually comes about will most likely be less exciting and far more benign.
The Realistic Ending
The Foundation for Economic Education pins this concept of a Mundane Revolution on one of the most classic futurist failures, “The flying car, of course, was the height of the romantic vision of the technological future. The assumption was that our mastery of flight would link up with the obvious centrality of the car to the emerging suburb-oriented mass culture to give us the ultimate in personal conveyance. What the futurists overlooked was that technology alone won’t do the trick. Inventions have to be profitable to be real innovations. As it turns out, the flying car was, and still is, simply too expensive to produce to be worthwhile for the vast majority of Americans... Blinded by “big technology” and deaf to the importance of economic considerations and marginal adjustments, the futurists failed to imagine terrestrial vehicles with CD/mp3/DVD players, GPS, built-in cell phones, computer-monitored performance, sturdier tires, and enhanced safety devices, not to mention overall quality. Getting 100,000 miles, which used to be one measure of a high-quality car, is now expected. Our lives today have been notably enriched by the incremental improvements in the automobile.” (Horwitz)
In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The future is coming and whether it is in the form of a bogey man of a fairy godmother it's going to come for all of us. Those who go kicking and screaming will no doubt be left bruised and battered however, those of us who jump in headfirst, might just come out alive and well. Such critical social shifts are appropriately described as waves, and it is always more enjoyable and safer to dive under such waves rather than fight it and end up tossed back onto the beach. So as for me and my house, I for one, welcome our Robot Overlords.
*A Note on the Distinction Between AI and Automation
Those more intimately familiar with the subject material will undoubtedly take issue with the author’s brutish fusion of the separate fields of Automation and Artificial Intelligence. It is to be noted that this obfuscation was intentional, as Automation is to the Body as Artificial Intelligence is to the Spirit. Without Automated systems in place, an AI is useless, a ghost amongst men of flesh, but with with them Artificial Intelligences can call upon all manner of robotic golem to manifest their digital will.
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