Five pieces published a few months ago helped us. Not by giving views we could all agree with, but by adding to our necessary national dialogue and refreshing us on what’s been happening in this field. Here’s what they had to say on this two-in-one area.
In “Moguls and Killer Robots,” which took up most of page 1 of the June 10th New York Times business section and two-thirds of another one, Cade Metz set out to tell us what happened between business information technology titans Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, and ended up providing information bearing repetition. That included Musk’s statements that artificial intelligence was “potentially more dangerous than nukes,” and that “we are headed toward either superintelligence or civilization ending,” of which Zuckerberg, perhaps due to his experience being in a less physically hazardous area, Facebook, than Musk’s space tourism at least partially disagreed. We also saw what can happen when business decisions, in this case “a $9 million A.I. contract (Google) had signed with the Pentagon,” conflict with the views of employees, who threatened a “rebellion,” and the statement apparently not obvious to some from an Oxford research director that “you can now talk about the risks of A.I. without seeming like you are lost in science fiction,” echoed by concerns from a Cornell computer science professor that “the kind of systems we are creating are very powerful… and we cannot understand their impact.” Metz indirectly touched on the difference between narrow AI, focused and benign, and general AI, which need not be either, and reminded us how they can depart from the usual human ways of solving problems, when such a facility was directed to maximize scores in a boat racing computer game and did that “while spinning in circles, colliding with stone walls and ramming other boats.” The founder of Google’s Deep Mind, the effort creating the board-game Go program which beat a major champion, Demis Hassabis, summarized our needs well by saying “we need to use the downtime, when things are calm, to prepare for when things get serious in the decades to come.” We can disagree that all is tranquil now on the AI-danger front, but not that it will at least threaten to get worse later.
“If the Robots Come for Our Jobs, What Should the Government Do?” Neil Irwin posed this question in article form in the June 12th New York Times. He acknowledged that “lots of smart technologists and futurists are convinced that we are on the cusp of a world in which artificial intelligence, robotics and other technologies will make a large portion of today’s jobs obsolete,” and considered a guaranteed income, along with “overhauling intellectual property law so that the companies that develop valuable patents and trademarks don’t have such a lengthy monopoly on their innovations” (will Mickey Mouse be in the 2100 public domain?) and “work-sharing programs” by in effect removing 20% of each of 500 positions instead of fully laying off 100 people (worthwhile). He quoted someone saying it was “increasingly crucial that people continually upgrade their skills to keep up with changing technology” (a clear strategy for individuals, but a cop-out for helping employment in general), and advocating “making job benefits like health insurance and retirement funds more “portable”” (a direction in which we have already been moving). Now, if we only had similar sets of proposals to deal with globalization and efficiency…
I published many of the points made by Mary Flanagan in “The Rise of the “Automacene”: How Robots Will Define the Next Epoch in Human History” (Salon, June 16) between book covers five and six years ago, but they are also worth reiterating. Flanagan cited research-driven estimates that automation, timeframe unspecified, has 98% and 99% chances of spelling the end of positions as loan officers and tax preparers respectively, but less than 1% to do the same for nursing assistants and mental health social workers. To prepare for a changing “future of work” and “a future in which unprecedented unemployment is the norm,” the author recommends “an educated populace” (see my comment above) and “ability to interconnect disparate ideas” (my personal experience from a lifetime of having this skill, and everything I’ve read about actual workplace trends, say that employers still almost never care about that). There’s much more to our “need to decouple our jobs from the meaning and identity we expect them to provide us,” on which I wrote an entire chapter and which has been dropping since the 1950s, but there’s no arguing with Flanagan’s conclusion that “we’ll only be able to navigate the upcoming tumultuous changes in society by embracing deep conversations on what it means to be human in the era of machines,” even though precious few Americans want to have such things.
Two more to follow, for next week along with conclusions.