Wednesday, March 15, 2017

It's Time We Started a Discussion on Artificial Intelligence and Our Kids' Future

Artificial intelligence, robots, automation together ensure that our kids and especially our grandkids will inhabit a world unlike any previously known to humankind.

The subject has recently come up in conjunction with Trump's boastful promise to repatriate all the once high-paid manufacturing jobs offshored to China and elsewhere over the past 30-years. Conventional wisdom holds that horse has left the barn and robotics and automation have left the barn door tightly shut and securely locked for good.

The jobs may come back but they won't come with paycheques. You don't pay robots. They're technological slave labour. America has seen this played out before. In Nancy Isenberg's book, "White Trash," there's a chapter that deals with pre-slavery America.

In 17th and 18th century America, manual labour was largely done by Isenberg's White Trash. Britain swept clean its streets and slums and sent the n'er do wells in ships holds to the New World where they were put to work in a system that eerily resembled Roman slavery. Cheap but not quite cheap enough which is why white labour found itself displaced with the arrival of black, slave labour. White Trash then struck out for the frontier and, in the process, expanded the United States ever westward.

This time, however, there doesn't seem to be any new frontier in which to seek refuge and opportunity in its abundance. We're in a bind and we're struggling for answers. The guy who owns all the robots is sitting pretty until he needs to find consumers to buy his output. They need purchasing power and that means paycheques. Even Henry Ford knew he needed to pay his assembly line workers a wage sufficient to enable them to buy cars.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and automation take this conundrum to new levels. You can't have a consumer economy without some form of wealth distribution. Back when we had a broad-based, robust and prosperous middle class it was anchored on wealth distribution. Despite all the talk about mandatory minimum incomes it's unclear how we can ever restore the postwar middle class.

BBC Future has a terrific essay by Oxford prof Viktor Mayer-Schonberger entitled, "The Last Things That Will Make Us Uniquely Human."  He begins with a report recently filed with the California DMV.

It details the efforts of Google (or more precisely its Waymo subsidiary) to make autonomous driving a reality. According to the report, in 2016 Google’s self-driving cars clocked 635,868 miles (1,023,330km), and required human intervention 124 times. That is one intervention about every 5,000 miles (8,047km) of autonomous driving. But even more impressive is the progress in just a single year: human interventions fell from 0.8 times per thousand miles to 0.2, which translates into a 400% improvement. With such progress, Google’s cars will easily surpass my own driving ability later this year.

Driving once seemed to be a very human skill. But we said that about chess, too. Then a computer beat the human world champion, repeatedly. The strategy board game Go took over from chess as the litmus test for human thinking; until 2016, when a computer bested one of the world’s leading professional Go players. IBM’s Watson aced Jeopardy – another supposedly human domain – in 2011, and is now dividing its time between identifying cancerous moles and cooking up creative recipes, among other things.

With computers conquering what used to be deeply human tasks – those that require knowledge, strategy, even creativity – what will it mean in the future to be human?

The good professor ponders what future awaits his six year old son.

Actually, it all comes down to a fairly simple question: What’s so special about us, and what’s our lasting value? It can’t be skills like arithmetic or typing, which machines already excel in. Nor can it be rationality, because with all our biases and emotions we humans are lacking.

So perhaps we might want to consider qualities at a different end of the spectrum: radical creativity, irrational originality, even a dose of plain illogical craziness, instead of hard-nosed logic. A bit of Kirk instead of Spock. So far, machines have a pretty hard time emulating these qualities: the crazy leaps of faith, arbitrary enough to not be predicted by a bot, and yet more than simple randomness. Their struggle is our opportunity.

If I am right, we should foster a creative spirit, irreverent takes, even irrational ideas as we educate our children. Not because irrationality is bliss, but because a dose of illogical creativity will complement the rationality of the machine. It’ll keep guaranteeing us a place on the table of evolution.

Unfortunately, however, our education system has not caught up to the impending reality of this Second Machine Age. Much like peasants stuck in preindustrial thinking, our schools and universities are structured to mould pupils to be mostly obedient servants of rationality, and to develop outdated skills in interacting with outdated machines.

But most of all we need to keep the long-term perspective in mind: that even if computers will outsmart us, we can still be the most creative act in town, if we embrace creativity as one of the defining values of humanness. Like funnily irrational ideas, or grand emotions.

Because if we don’t, we won’t be providing much value in the ecosystem of the future, and that may put in question the foundation for our existence.

We better start now. Because when the existence and purpose of humanity is at stake, focusing on partisan politics and the social media outpourings of the US president is little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Food for thought, to be sure. Yes, there'll always be a place for humans and their irrational creativity yet I know of far more humans who are not creatively gifted than those who are. We haven't had a lot of Michelangelo's. In fact we've done pretty well with just the one. We've had our Einstein's and Oppenheimer's and our Hawking's but, by and large, the top tier intellects have been a small minority of the overall populace which is why they're so celebrated. 

Besides, the world is bursting at the seams with humanity, now 7.5-billion strong heading, we're told, to 9-billion and quite possibly even more. To put that in perspective, when I was born humanity numbered roughly 2.5 billion, itself an all time record. In less than one lifetime our global population has swelled three fold.

Professor Schonenberger's solution is an answer, a partial solution but on a very small scale.  We'll have to come up with something much better than that. Inevitably we'll have to shrink the global population probably by half if not a little more. I hope that we can bring a little irrational creativity to the solution.


Anonymous said...

Jetsons' flying car anyone?

Even the current IBM supercomputer (if it could be ever towed behind) has less capacity for processing of un-expected events than the average human. What is cost of it? What about the cost of all the sensors? I know prices are going down, but check your numbers with a hardware engineer.
There will be place for fully automated transportation on a very well delineated and semi dedicated corridors, in gated communities, etc.
Assisted transportation, such as collision avoidance, line change warning and similar goodies are proliferating happily though and this area, not fully automated driving, is where immediate future lies (barring of course sudden increases in computing power by at least 10^6 with similar drop in price and size).
I agree with the thesis of the article that human advantage might be our irrationality. It sometimes works...

The Mound of Sound said...

Think of air combat maneuvering, A..non. The unmanned fighter can usually whip the manned fighter until the pilot does the unexpected and turns the tables. The unmanned aircraft predicts the rational options and is ready to react to them but it can't handle the irrational or unexpected nearly so well.

UU4077 said...

AI - but, to what end? How will humankind adapt? Human evolution is on life-support - the slightest deviation (evolution?) is eradicated immediately. Are we (our children and grandchildren) to ultimately experience the "Terminator" future?

What do the creators of AI see as the future? Have they really thought it out? Or,is the only focus "short term profits"? (The most recent example of which is the recent Tim Horton's franchisee/RBI issues.)

Anonymous said...


The unmanned fighter can usually whip the manned fighter until the pilot does the unexpected and turns the tables. The unmanned aircraft predicts the rational options and is ready to react to them but it can't handle the irrational or unexpected nearly so well

Just like the USA election!!

For the majority AI will be a new war front.
Think Google or Microsoft vs mankind!


Gyor said...

So much meledrama.

Yes change will be needed, but all the Automation will have it's up sides, such increased productivity and we will no longer have to give crappy jobs to humans, and with wealth redistribution it will free humans up to focus on the higher levels of the Mazlo Hierarchy of human needs.

The most important part in the immediate term is dealing with wealth distribution, which Basic Income is a good start.

We have to start thinking of human beings as more then their utility. P

Gyor said...

Instead of Kirk or Spock, perhaps think more Seven of Nine and Dr. Julian Bashir being the future of humanity. Aka transhumanism, maybe it's time for humanity to begin to evolve into something greater and more amazing then our current state, through cybernetics, genetic enigeering, perhaps other technologies.

Anonymous said...

With every consumer driven innovation there comes a reduction in either employment or, more importantly, meaningful employment.
Canada is not alone in personal high debt be it credit cards,seven year car loans or dont pay until next year furniture purchases.
Genetics, cyber humans, more efficiency, higher gdp ( working longer and cheaper for less) leads to the slave state where the voting public's vote is determined more by the state of her or his bank statement than the better of the immediate community , country or the world.

It has been published that the person that gives us ( need it or not) artificial intelligence ; will become the world first $ Trillionaire!
Just think how much power that person would have?


Purple library guy said...

The problem here isn't with computers or robots, or with their being superior whatever that might mean. It is with the instrumental drive of capital. What the good doctor is really asking, whether he realizes it or not, is "In what way are humans (going to be) more useful to capitalists than computers?"
If people run their own affairs the question doesn't really come up. If we were only making those computers which were useful to people, then we wouldn't be making computers with a view to replacing people because that's not useful to people. At which point, how clever researchers could make individual computers would become an interesting research question and little more.