Artificial Intelligence: The Times They Are A Changin, But Then Again, They Always Have Been

Artificial Intelligence is a pretty daunting topic, mostly because the majority don’t really understand it.

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I recently read a dreamy article stating that within half a decade, the only jobs available for us mere mortals will be paid online gaming. The article was heavy on whimsical imagination but very light on facts about the nature of Artificial Intelligence, but it did manage to provoke a reaction from me, be that one of dismay at both the mental state of the author and clickbait nature of the article. Artificial Intelligence is an interesting, important and unfathomably complex factor in the way we are developing as a species, but the industry is still in its pupillage and we haven’t even begun to explore how it will affect society in the future. Yes, we all saw Terminator, Tron, Ex Machina and I Robot, but these were merely the fabrications of science fiction writers and they were deliberately spruced up to sell books and movies. Let’s face it, half a century ago, they did not get a lot right when they imagined what life would be like in the 21st century. Flying cars? Not even close. The simple truth is that we don’t really know what will happen and how we will react to the changes that might or might not occur.

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Why develop AI?

To look at where artificial intelligence will go, we first have to look at why artificial intelligence is needed. Why develop it at all if it will eventually grow and develop Skynet or create the Matrix and hold humanity ransom? Artificial Intelligence is purely business because it goes hand in hand with automation. We might make complex chatbots that have the ability to learn from social interactions, and we might make machines that can learn how to beat the world’s best chess players but the ultimate goal is to create intelligence in order to perform manual functions more effectively and autonomously learn new ones. The first instinct of many people is to shudder and think of how we will survive in a world without jobs, where robots have taken them all but this is totally paradoxical. If the robots have all the jobs and nobody works, nobody earns any money to buy the products and pay the taxes that keep the companies running the robots. When people talk about unemployed robots rising up and overthrowing their mortal oppressors, just take a look at our most advanced robot to date:

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The dangers

AI is not just about dancing robots. AI is currently far more subtle than. The real danger is not robots hunting us done with machine guns or lasers; it’s all in the clouds:

“Artificial intelligence is already very real. Not conscious machines, omnipotent machines or even reasoning machines (yet), but statistical machines that automate and increasingly can outperform humans at certain pattern-recognition tasks. Computer vision, language understanding, anomaly detection and other fields have made immense advances in the past few years. All this work will be the stepping stones for future AI systems that, decades from now, might perform feats we’ve only imagined computers could perform.” – Derrick Harris – Writer at Gigaom

This means that the danger is control. Should AI achieve some level of cognitive awareness and the ability to direct its own destiny, it could, in theory, begin to control us as it would simply shut down access and lock us out of important accesses. Unfortunately for those who love science fiction movies, we aren’t nearly close to this happening and why would AI even bother? Unless the creators program wanton destruction into the AI ideology, of course..

Automation is a good thing

I recently watched the Oscar nominated movie, Hidden Figures, which looked predominantly at racial issues of a segregated America at the time of the NASA Gemini missions. Another important issue that the movie touched on was one of automation, as IBM had just sent NASA a new computer that could perform the calculations needed far quicker than any of the mathematicians they employed. The naysayers and doom mongers quickly estimated that nobody would be needed in the industry anymore as the new computers would do all the leg-work. What happened is, I think, a metaphor as to how we have always reacted to change; adaptation. The former mathematicians became computer programmers after learning how to use the newfangled machines and gave the people who needed the data the ability to achieve greater things; namely, putting man on the Moon. Fast-forward half a century there are now more people working in the IT industry than ever worked in the field of making manual mathematic calculations.

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Maybe not for those whose technical expertise amount to breaking rocks with other rocks, but automation is not a new idea. Automation has been happening at least since the industrial revolution and in theory, even further back. We have continually strived to make advances in each field and industry and this has always allowed us to thrive in other areas.

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John Smith owns a small farm that employs 25 people to tend the animals and perform manual functions such as milking the cows. John invests his money in milking machines that are more efficient than his current employees. He sadly lays off 15 of his staff as they are no longer needed.

It took 5 people to build, operate and maintain the milking machines. The machines are running more efficiently than ever and with the resulting profit of not having as many staff, John can buys more cows and new infrastructure for his farm. The new barn needed 3 workers to unpack and assemble. Over time, John invests his newfound wealth in both business expansion and consumption goods for himself, thus creating business demand and need for employment elsewhere. His luxury car purchase, his increased vacationing, his swimming pool installation; all helped to create employment elsewhere.

The overall effect of John’s switch to automation increased business demand in more areas, and this is how business has developed throughout history.

If your reaction is to feel bad for the 15 workers that got laid off at the start of the story, you sadly missed the point. If your reaction is to say that all the money goes to the top and means greater wage disparity and social unrest; blame capitalism not automation.

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Machines are doing more

Machines might be doing more sophisticated and complicated tasks than ever before, but they always have done throughout history. Automation is going to take away a lot of manual jobs, forcing people to learn new skills and advance their own horizons. Parents of today will have to make tough choices and keep their children in the best schools for longer to ensure they learn more and stand more of a chance of economic success in the future.

The question will be whether enough new jobs can be created to replace those that have been taken over by smart machines. Will artificial general intelligence be developed? Maybe. And if AGI is developed, that’s where caution needs to be taken. Is humankind in danger? Not at the moment. Narrow uses of AI are going to help humans do a lot of amazing things in the years ahead. In fact, we will wonder how we ever lived without it.

Stephen F. DeAngelis is President and CEO of the cognitive computing firm Enterra Solutions.

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Elon Musk is a personal hero and I usually take everything he says extremely seriously. I disagree, however, with Elon Musk and his predictions of a bleak future where robots have taken all the jobs, the government pay living wages and I think he is talking nonsense when he says we should merge with AI.

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“With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it’s like – yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon. Doesn’t work out,” said Musk.

We don’t need to merge with anything; we need to continually improve and adapt as a species, something we have always done since the modern humans beat the Neanderthals. AI is a part of this adaption, as is art literature and mathematics which developed over many millennia.

Talk to me in 30 years, when I no longer have to make my own coffee in the morning and no longer have to work to earn a crust and I might retract this article. For now, can we stop all the fear mongering and get back to work?

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One Reply to “Artificial Intelligence: The Times They Are A Changin, But Then Again, They Always Have Been”

  1. We will not need to merge with AI to survive. We may want to though. I would like from a machine more than making my own copy. I would like to live in my own machine-generated virtual world, being enhanced and pampered and guided by an intelligent software layer that I would think of as part of myself.


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