Next Big Thing

Robots Are Taking Over the Earth! And, why it’s a good thing. Nov 6, 2017 Robots Are Taking Over the Earth! And, why its a good thing.

The End of civilization as we know it

It could be argued that when Windows 95 came out, solitaire instantly became the most popular game in the western world. Everyone could play by themselves and everyone could be a winner.

A few years later, the chess world collectively held its breath while Kasparov famous played IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. They looked at the man vs. machine battle and wondered if it was the end for humanity. When Deep Blue unexpectedly won, most people predicted that chess would fall out of popularity and interest in the game would rapidly wane. People had officially been replaced by machines, and the game was over.

These dire predictions were nothing new, and they haven’t stopped since. We are bombarded by headlines like “Uber’s Otto Driverless Cars to Replace Humans”, “Millions of Manufacturing Jobs at Risk,” and “Is Your Job About To Disappear?” But are these fears founded? Or, are they just hype to sell more newspapers? The answer is not so black and white.

The future has finally come

For decades science fiction writers and futurists have predicted that we will someday have driverless cars. You may still be wondering when that will happen and it might surprise you that it already has. Over a year ago, San Francisco startup Otto made the world’s first commercial delivery with an autonomous truck. The 50,000 cans of Budweiser safely made their way 200 km across one state line to make the delivery in Colorado, with just $30,000 of retrofitted hardware and software to replace the driver.

The idea of a truck making an autonomous delivery seemed ludicrous just a few years ago. But, we now live in a world where it has been done. The only real roadblock is the legislation to allow it to move from the development stage to implementation.

This seems like great news for anyone who has been looking for a way to get more done on their commute to work. It is bad news for the millions of people worldwide that make a living behind a steering wheel. But, technology has been replacing human effort for hundreds of years.

Home on the range?

Agriculture was one of the first industries to see massive mechanization. Over the past one hundred years, the agriculture sector in the most industrialized countries has gone from employing over 30 percent of the population to under 2 percent.

Similar trends have been seen in the manufacturing and mining industries. Despite these massive loses, rather than people going without work, these countries saw massive increases in employment in the information and service industries, maintaining a balance in overall employment.

Even agriculture has found a new norm and reports show that 60,000 new job opening become available each year in the industry. Most of these are highly-skilled, long-term positions for college graduates.

“There is a tendency to look at agriculture through a very narrow prism of production agriculture,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “It’s not just production agriculture now but this is an expanding, entrepreneurial, creative, opportunistic aspect of our economy that I think will continue.”

AI is taking over the world

The main difference between the influence of AI learning and human learning is the scope. When humans learn something new, they then have the ability to share that knowledge with another human being. Computer based AI not only have a shorter learning curve, but once one computer has mastered a skill, the code can easily be transferred to any other computer. In other words, when Deep Blue beat Kasparov, every computer in the world instantly had the ability to do so.

So, what happened to all the predictions about the death of chess among humans? Actually, what happened was the exact opposite of the predictions. Interest in chess has steadily risen in the two decades since the famous human defeat. This is partially due to the fact that every human on the planet now has access to a world-class chess tutor.

This has risen the quality of play among human players, regardless of the fact that humans cannot beat a computer. No one in the chess world seems to care that a computer is better, they only care about playing other humans. When Kasparov himself was asked about the implications of a computer being the best chess player in the world, he famously responded, “A car can beat a human in a race, but we are still excited by the Olympic 100m final.”

Humans are not that far away from their AI counterparts as well. Humans have been improving on their chess algorithms constantly. Even though no grandmaster has been able to beat an AI chess player since 2005, the reigning world-champion chess player, Komodo 8, at Thoresen Chess Engines Competition (TCEC) was only able to win because the development team brought grandmaster Larry Kaufman onto the development team. His human expertise, partially adapted from his study of AI driven techniques, helped him tweak the AI and best the old champion. A perfect example of AI helping humans, and humans helping AI.

But, many are concerned that we will not always be in this innovation loop.

A whole new ballgame

Most opponents to AI are concerned that this time it will be different. Their concerns are based on 2 ideas. The first is that, until now technology and even AI have been specific. Meaning they can do only one thing well, like play chess. Soon AI will be able to do everything better, taking us out of the loop. Instead of AI helping humans and humans helping AI, it will be AI helping AI. This not only leaves us with nothing to do, it means that the rate of progress will increase exponentially. This has been referred to the singularity – the point as which humans are no longer in the loop. Which leads to the second issue.

The second issue is that it is just happening too fast. Previous disruption took a generation to change the industry. Children growing up on farms were forced to get a traditional education and work in another industry.

The disruption of AI could move that timescale to years, and continue increasing this rapid change indefinitely. People will not be able to adapt to each new iteration fast enough to keep up. Even now secondary schools are teaching undergraduate students to solve problems in their final year, that didn’t even exist when they started their four-year degree. How can humans hope to contribute in an environment like that, or even keep up?

Hope dies last

What will the jobs of the future be? No one knows. Will we sit around in cubicles playing solitaire, then attend a progress meeting and report to the team what our computer AI has been working on?

There is still hope. Just as no one could have seen the explosion of growth in the IT sector. Even in mathematics, there has been unprecedented growth – the very area that computers excel in more than any other. More people are currently employed in math an analytics than any time in history, and growth is also fastest in the countries that have the most computers, not the least.

It is not just higher-educated STEM positions that are experiencing growth. No one predicted 100 years ago that the US would employ over 2 million waitresses and waiters or 300,000 nannies today either. These industries have seen steady growth in recent years and are expected to continue to grow, since human interaction is intrinsic in the position. Bespoke artwork, grassroots celebrities and life coaching are also on the rise as people look toward individuality, personal creativity and self expression over cold, hard efficiency.

The human touch

Some industries will be very resistant to replacing humans. Despite the amount of free educational materials available online, personal teaching and training are still fast growing industries and will likely continue to do so as more and more people seek for personal coaches and adopt life-long learning practices.

Also, how long will it be before we trust a 5 year old child to a robot nanny, or feel comfortable putting our children on an unsupervised, self driving school bus? Even if the bus driver doesn’t touch the wheel, they will be present. Can you imagine informing a patient that they have a terminal illness through anyone less than a doctor looking them in the eye in front of them?

A new symbiotic relationship

Intelligence is essential to solve any problem. Humans tend to be very good at solving some problems, and artificial intelligence is good at solving others. By working together, we will be able to solve problems that we never thought we would ever be able to solve.

There is one thing that our early entry into AI has taught us – that it is better to lose at chess than win at solitaire. The ability to connect with people and provide a “human touch” is our most precious asset. Let the computers do what they do best, and let humans do what we do best. After all, progress is not about seeking for a perfect state, but the natural result of acknowledging that humanity will never be perfect, and embracing that truth together.