Robots will not (necessarily) replace us

You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—And Sooner Than You Think, argues Kevin Drum in Mother Jones.

His argument is simple.  Historically, computing power doubles every couple of years.   There is no reason to think this will stop anytime soon.   So at some point the capability of artificial intelligence will exceed the capability of human intelligence.  Machines will be able to do any kind of job, including physician, artist or chief executive officer, better than a human being can.

This will happen gradually, then, as AI doubles the last few times, suddenly.

When that happens, humanity will be divided into a vast majority who serve no economic function, and a tiny group of capitalists who own the means of production.   Rejection of automation is not an option, according to Drum.   It only means that your nation will be unable to compete with nations that embrace it.

The only question, according to Drum, is whether the wealthy capitalists will have enough vision to give the rest of us enough of an income to survive and to create a market for the products of automation.

I have long believed that automation is driven as much by administrators’ desire for command and control as it is by the drive for economic efficiency.   An automated customer service hotline does not provide better service, but it eliminates the need to deal with pesky and contentious human beings.

I also believe that, in the short run, the danger is not that computer algorithms will surpass human intelligence, but that people in authority will treat them as if they do.

Drum presents interesting information, new to me, about the amazing progress of machine intelligence in just the past few years.   But that’s not necessary to his argument.

His argument is based on continuation of exponential growth and (unstated) continuation of the current economic system, which works for the benefit of high-level executives and administrators and of holders of financial assets at the expense of the rest of us.

There’s no law of physics that says development of technology has to result in higher unemployment.  Under a different system of incentives and ownership, technology could be used to expand the capability of workers and to make work more pleasant and fulfilling.

To the extent that automation eliminated boring and routine jobs, it could free up people to work in human services—in schools, hospitals, nursing homes—and in the arts and sciences.

Technology does not make this impossible.   Our current economic structure does.   Our current economic structure was created by human decisions, and can be changed by human decisions.  Technological determinism blinds us to this reality.

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5 Responses to “Robots will not (necessarily) replace us”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I had drafted a response to this, particularly the notion that Drum drums up, of things developing in a straight trajectory so that technology and wealthy capitalists will combine to act fatally against majority human interest. Perhaps he put some data into a robot’s brain and it came up with this prediction.

    I trashed my too-lengthy response, but it seems to have surfaced in a subsequentdream

    Anyhow, “if history tells us anything, it tells us that history can tell us nothing”. A quote or misquote from Douglas Adams.

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  2. Vincent Says:

    I followed up your link to “The real reason robots are replacing human labour, wherein you said this:

    “The great danger of so-called artificial intelligence is not that computers will become sentient beings, but that decision-makers will treat them as if they are.”

    I would add a corollary:

    The great danger of so-called artificial intelligence is not that it will replace human employees, but that decision-makers will consider the intelligence of their employees as a form of artificial intelligence that has not yet been programmed. (Just as slave-owners thought they were buying labouring machines.)

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  3. philebersole Says:

    Computer algorithms are being used in:
    • Decisions on military targeting
    • Identification of possible terrorists
    • Sentencing decisions in criminal cases
    • Investment decisions
    • Hiring decisions
    • Evaluation of credit risks
    • Targeting of advertising
    • Targeting of political advertising.

    The computer algorithm is regarded as objective while the human decision is regarded as subjective. The fact is that the ultimate source of the computer algorithm is a fallible human being.

    A decision arising from a computer algorithm should not be regarded as more authoritative than a human decision. It definitely should not be regarded as unappealable.

    Human beings should not be able to escape accountability for their decisions by hiding behind a computer algorithm.

    We should not forget that technology is a servant, not a master. The question is: Whose servant?

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  4. Edward Says:

    “computing power doubles every couple of years.”

    There is a quantum limit to computing power. I don’t know how close we are to that point. I think the basic obstacle to AI is the absence of mathematical techniques to explain non-linear systems. We do not have the math tools to explain how intelligence emerges out of neural networks. People can start to worry about AI when a breakthrough is made in nonlinear techniques. I agree we can worry about the abuses of AI or other technologies because by and large elites are immoral people who I fear giving power. Can you imagine Washington with more tools to dominate the planet?

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    • philebersole Says:

      We know that human level intelligence is compatible with the laws of physics because human-level intelligence already exists—in human beings.

      Whether there are technical limits that would prevent the emergence of human-level artificial intelligence is another question. Whether an artificial human-level intelligence would be sentient is yet another question.

      My main concern is, I think, the same as yours—the misuse of existing machine intelligence and data technology.

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