Friday, October 26, 2018

Robots and Artificial Intelligence: Five Mid-Year Articles, Loads of Insights - II

A fourth article is yet another behind the curve, but in some respects a useful review.  Ben Casselman’s June 25th New York Times “Robots or Job Training:  Manufacturers Grapple With How to Improve Their Economic Fortunes” reminded us how automata would allow employers to avoid both hiring flawed people and paying more (actually, the article said “help ease their labor crunch”), that training potential workers might allow them to be suitable (what a novel idea), and that “rising productivity” could allow higher wages (only sometimes, as companies have competitors benefitting from it as well).  Casselman also quoted a Federal Reserve economist saying that with 3.8% joblessness “eventually you’re going to run out of easy-to-find workers” (not when we can easily fill over 15 million more positions, two-thirds to those not officially unemployed), named the problem with “unskilled laborers” not showing up and not doing their jobs (paying them more to increase demand for their positions is still legal, and some business propositions dependent on low wages won’t succeed anyway), and touched on both the significance of accumulated efficiency in reducing the number of positions and higher labor costs encouraging “ways to economize.”  He said that “raising rates too quickly could be a costly mistake for the Fed” (was Wednesday’s 600-point Dow drop a result of that?), and noted that “The Fed’s most recent projections estimate that the unemployment rate will fall to 3.5 percent next year” (what does that assume about the effects of our escalating trade war?).  All worthy of discussion, if not agreement.

The final piece of the five is a view from Andy Clark, “a professor of logic and metaphysics,” that “We Are Merging With Robots.  That’s a Good Thing.”  This further New York Times article suggested that automata’s amalgamation with artificial intelligence may add the third area of human capability.  He named ten things “true today,” some among them that “sex and companionship robots are already here,” that “the human genome itself is now an object of control and intervention” (we are just getting started, with gigantic ethical issues along with massive opportunities just around the corner), and that “neuro-enhancement, the improvement by drugs, practices, or implants of normal mental functioning, is possible and may soon become the norm” (did that start with Prozac, 32 years ago?).  He may have been carried away in saying that “sharing and group solidarity are now easier than ever before,” when that is woefully untrue with in-person interaction, but noted that “the boundaries between body and machine, between mind and world, between standard, augmented and virtual realities, and between human and post-human” are becoming less clear.  More properly, though, they are being redefined, as such borders were breached over 700 years ago with the first pair of eyeglasses.  Clark continued by writing that what he called these machine “subintelligences” were “not yet intelligences like our own,” correct unless we consider a toaster smart for being able to brown bread, and called the “two most important… questions” how we should “negotiate” all of these possibilities” (of course), “and what costs are we willing to tolerate along the way?” something now being negotiated with driverless vehicles.  He also rose the issue of inequality, certain to happen if these improvements require personal resources, and concluded that “what is up for grabs is what we humans are, and will become.”

Instead of my own conclusions beyond the parenthetical statements above, I will defer to a sixth piece of writing, dated August 11th and once more in the New York Times, from Sherry Turkle, for decades a clear and freethinking voice on the subjects of the program she teaches at M.I.T., “science, technology, and society.”  The title, “There Will Never Be an Age of Artificial Intimacy,” says most of it.  No matter how effective robots or computer applications seem to be, their lack of emotions will invariably “lead to an empathic dead end.”  There is all the difference between these things and living beings, even those of terrestrial or other species with which we cannot verbally communicate, which can feel.  In that sense artificial intelligence is a misnomer, and we can see no work in progress with a chance to change that.  More than anything else about robots and artificial intelligence, that is what we need to understand. 

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