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.
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.
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.
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.
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.