As a kid I mowed a lot of lawns and read a lot of sci-fi, but if you told me in the 80’s that in 2016 we’d be wasting our robots on mowing lawns, I’d have scoffed at you (I was a mature child, and scoffing even at that young age). But here they are, mowing, vacuuming and walking dogs. We’ve jumped on every chance to refactor biological entities out of industry – the printing press, the steam tractor, the mechanical bull – but now, in a poetic glimpse of the future, we’ve even started outsourcing our own kids’ summer jobs to the bots. What assault shall the world of child labor bear next? Automated lemonade stands? Who cares and who’s next? Oh progress! That’s so you! After thousands of years of chipping away at simple physical labor, progress is foaming at the mouth to take on “thinking jobs”. While we’re still limited to mostly “weak AI” suitable for replacing simple tasks (like driving, apparently) “strong AI” is gaining ground. And the better it gets, the better it will get at getting better, faster.
As of this writing I’ve been propositioned by an AI recruiter, talked with AI help desks, and had AI marketing software offer me AI web design. Wired, The LA Times, AP and Forbes are using algorithmic “journalists” to spit out articles, from earnings reports to obituaries. AI is doing legal discovery, and can predict over 70% of U.S. Supreme Court cases, one of the most valuable services offered by big law firms. IBM’s Watson has proven itself adept at diagnosing cancer, and Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys system is doing anesthesiology. Sales reps? Drivers, traffic controllers and combat pilots? Financial analysts? The 4th mass extinction. “I’ll become an artist! Surely a robot can’t-” Done! Screenwriters too (but only if you want French New Wave comedy). “Well, I’ll just become a programmer!” Bored-person-in-basement experiments have successfully produced full-blown functions written by genetic algorithms. Another BPIB is feeding deep-learning LSTMNN’s (Long Short Term Memory Neural Networks. Duh.) more than the recommended daily allowance of Python scripts and getting promising results. So goodbye QA/testing and other entry-level work for anyone not holding an advanced degree. You too, managers. You don’t have any employees left.
It’s true that AI is a LONG way from reaching a general intelligence that would allow it to replace us entirely, but in reality it doesn’t need to be a drop-in replacement of a human to take their job. All technology simply augments human abilities. Individual &/or collective productivity goes up, negating the need for other workers. During the industrial revolution many people speculated that “progress” would put us all out of jobs. Ford’s assembly-line might have put some carriage-builders out of work, but it more than made up for that job loss by ramping up demand for and production of a previously niche product. New jobs were created for assemblers, machinists, mechanics, drivers, oil barrons, steel-refiners, bumper-sticker designers and rubber plantation slaves. Keynes’ predicted de-employment of humankind did happen, it’s simply been unevenly distributed (in time and by industry). Job losses were also smoothed over by union demands for an 8-hour work day, which spread work among more people. But now? AI is an omnipresent creation that, once developed, scales with virtually zero increase in (automated) manufacturing. One Watson can replace thousands of jobs, anywhere in this solar system. AI will create new demand, and even new job categories, but how much of that will require a human, and for how long? After all, we just outsourced strength, endurance, dexterity, analysis and even creativity to machines. Adaptability is in the works, so… how much is left to do?
‘the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors.‘ – Wassily Leontief
Another major difference from the Industrial Revolution is timing. Previous leaps of progress took hundreds, even thousands of years. The AI revolution comes in the midst of the Information Revolution, exponentially-increasing advancements in manufacturing & service robotics (Rethink Robotics, or Kiva Systems‘ ) and efficiency gains across the board that allow us to do more with less. Globalization aside, we are BLEEDING jobs and replacing them with mostly “service sector” jobs and the military. Which are quickly being automated. Even Chinese workers, on whom the world has relied for cheap labor, are now being replaced by robots.
No, you won’t get a job “sign-juggling” for the local mattress store. I saw a robot doing a bad job of that just the other day. Let’s face it. We’ve peaked. So we’re all gonna be standing by the freeway with “Will eat food” signs, watching cars drive themselves by. Unless… Maybe this is our chance to cross the threshold from the weak future we’re futzing around in now, into the strong future that isn’t based on Industrial Era models of employment and consumptive capitalism! In the next installment I will spin this whole mess into a futuretopia that would make Asimov dance, LeGuin weep with joy, and Bradburry pee with excitement! So put down that cardboard and sharpie! Our future with AI is the same amount of work, but way more kickass!