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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Me hate robots! Me Bash!

People have always had an innate distrust of new things, new technology, things that are not fully understood or out of our own direct control. You see this "Frankenstein" paradigm quite often in movies: The Terminator, The Matrix, War Games, Jurassic Park, 2001 A Space Odyssey, just to name a few. It makes me wonder if there's something in our DNA that makes us fear our species will go the way of the dinosaur, or perhaps the Neanderthal? And how diabolically fateful—if in our magnificent hubris—we end up creating the very ones who replace us?
Artificial intelligence could lead to mass unemployment if computers develop the capacity to take over human work, experts warned days after it emerged that Google had beat competitors to buy a firm specialising in this kind of technology.

Dr Stuart Armstrong, from the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, gave the stark warning after it emerged that Google had paid [$500m] for the British artificial intelligence firm DeepMind.

He added: “We have some studies looking into which jobs are the most vulnerable and there’s quite a lot of them in logistics, administration, insurance underwriting but ultimately a huge swathe of jobs are potentially vulnerable to improved artificial intelligence.”
There was a time, not too many years ago, when just doing the laundry was a major undertaking requiring hours of laborious effort. Can you imagine the drudgery of this? First women had to heat a cauldron of water—probably by first building a fire—then cooking a "load" of laundry for a while before scrubbing it on a wash-board. Or perhaps they scrubbed then cooked? Next there was the required wringing of the laundry out a piece at a time. Next there was the obligatory hanging it up on a clothes-line with the little springy-clips. I suspect with several loads this chore might take most of the day. When the automated washing-machine and clothes dryer were first invented, I wonder if economists worried about the fate of housewives in such a high-tech world?
The make-work bias is best illustrated by a story, perhaps apocryphal, of an economist who visits China under Mao Zedong. He sees hundreds of workers building a dam with shovels. He asks: “Why don’t they use a mechanical digger?” “That would put people out of work,” replies the foreman. “Oh,” says the economist, “I thought you were making a dam. If it’s jobs you want, take away their shovels and give them spoons.”
There's little doubt that the era of "unskilled" labor is drawing to a close. The future belongs to those who can learn and adapt to our exponentially changing world. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that people performing simple unskilled labor tasks will be losing their jobs. ATMS, self-checkout grocery lines, automated assembly lines, logistics systems complete with sophisticated robotic loading and unloading machinery, are only a few of the outliers. This trend promises goods and services delivered with fewer defects and at a lower price. This trend also demands that people who expect to have a job in the future will be required to meet higher qualifications.

For those who are alarmed by these facts and want to slow things down, I would ask them this question: what about the illiterate? Why stop at doing away with robots and computers? If we really want to give everyone a chance, why not go back to pre-literate days? Perhaps the time when grunting and bashing with a club was a way of life is the era these neo-Luddites are nostalgically longing for.

The bad news is that now that we have computers and robots to do our work there's no putting the genie back in his bottle. The good news is that this is a powerful genie that is able to grant a practically limitless number of wishes.

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