[This is the transcript of my regularly scheduled KVMR commentary broadcast on 8 March 2017.]
For those who have been paying attention, you know that AI or artificial intelligence will change everything. And the word here you want to wrap your head around is ‘everything’. I’m a lifelong professional computer systems geek who has earned his bones in pushing back the AI frontier and building smart systems; those are systems that have various forms of AI, also known as machine intelligence, imbedded in them. Over the last 50 years AI has traveled a rocky road, now and then delivering some real pyrotechnics to catch everyone’s attention, and then falling short on promises.
Those days are over. During the last 20 or so years AI has quietly shed the hype and grown up, delivering real functionality in a range of systems and applications too wide to detail here. But rest assured, your day’s labors benefit in untold ways from AI, starting with your smart phone, making big advances in healthcare, satisfying your transportation needs, managing your wealth, and keeping you employed in a hundred, mostly invisible, ways.
Regular listeners to these commentaries know we are living in the pre-Singularity years during which machine intelligences are catching up and surpassing human intelligence in task after task. Most of us think nothing of asking our smartphone to dial a number, send a text message, or quickly answer any of a myriad of questions. Today many of us already have intelligent assistants in our homes supplied by companies like Amazon and Google that respond to the spoken word to deliver information, entertainment, and control certain gizmos in our house.
For example, in our home we have Amazon’s Alexa ‘who’ is always listening and ready to do our bidding on a rapidly growing repertoire of commands and questions. ‘She’ listens for her name, which is her wake-up word. So now, we and several of our friends with Alexas, have to call her something else like ‘Judy’ when referring to ‘her’, else she will immediately join the conversation and try to make sense of it with unexpected results ranging from funny to annoying. One of the ‘benefits’ of all these listening devices, like your phone, smart TV, house assistant, and even your computer, is that the government can now listen in on your conversations whenever they want. Just yesterday the world heard more details on how that is accomplished. How’s that for ‘1984’ already up and running in your living room?
Industry experts who develop and track the progress of AI advise us that “in a few years everyone will be using speech recognition. It will feel natural. You’ll soon forget what it was like before you could talk to computers.” The WSJ recently interviewed Andrew Ng of China’s Baidu and Neil Jacobstein of the Singularity University (here). They are among those who agree that today’s advent of AI is like that of electrification 100 years ago, the arrival of which changed every single industry in the land. We are now “in the phase where AI will (again) change pretty much every major industry.”
But nothing comes for free. Over the next 10 to 15 years we will have a transition where machines will be able to displace humans in almost every routine job available in industrialized countries. Neil Jacobstein, who studies things like the ratio of jobs created vs jobs destroyed, tells us that “at least in the short term” that ratio could be “unfavorable”. And according to my lights you can bet the ranch that that ratio will become even more unfavorable in the long term.
Finally, the left-leaning Brookings Institution did a study (here) on ‘work and social policy in the age of artificial intelligence’ that predictably concluded, “Progressive tax regimes that fund effective education, income support, health and housing programs will become more important in a future where many are working fewer hours for less pay. Policymakers need to acknowledge that dwindling work in the era of AI may look entirely different from the past. Deploying efforts to prepare for that future will go a long way to mitigating the potentially far-reaching impacts of automation on millions of workers around the world.” And it has already done that for 90M of America’s workers no longer in the workforce.
So pay attention and be prepared, the smart machines are already here, more are coming in droves. And sadly, there are no “effective education” programs that will enable the less intelligent among us to learn skills to earn enough for a good quality of life. Any feasible solution will require fewer people and more wealth redistribution.
My name is Rebane, and I also expand on this and related themes on Rebane’s Ruminations where the transcript of this commentary is posted with relevant links, and where such issues are debated extensively. However my views are not necessarily shared by KVMR. Thank you for listening.