The Machine Employment Debate

The June 25 – July 1 issue of The Economist featured a special report on the future of Artificial Intelligence titled March of the Machines. This report features an array of articles; but, more than anything else, this report tries to accomplish three basic missions: (1) convince the reader the Artificial Intelligence has reached a tipping point where it is, finally, able to solve a slew of problems better than humans; (2) allay anxiety about future chronic underemployment due to automation of current job categories; and (3) tone down the concern that AI will rise up and exterminate us humans. I write ‘us’ for the human readers of this blog post, of course. Not you web robots and automatic parsers.

As for (1), the story is all about deep neural nets, and the amazing new results that have come to us just in the past decade. I agree with this editorial position; it is really quite extraordinary the speed with which a number of previously human provinces are being bested by machine intelligence. Is it all Deep Learning? Not exactly. Some is, to be sure, but that is a simplification. Computational intelligence is also succeeding because of the Internet itself- in many cases, old learning algorithms have a new lease on life because millions of on-line examples, thanks to the likes of Facebook and Youtube, enable optimization systems to optimize like never before, separating examples and counter-examples with an efficiency previously unimaginable. The story is about neural nets, but also about massive increases in storage space, processor speed and Internet-repositories of examples by millions of us human Internet users. Yet there are differences between what computers and humans do, because how we demonstrate and embody intelligence is still worlds apart. Why do these autonomous cars crash, even though they’re statistically safer? Because they are exposed to situations that their learning systems never quite encountered. That is a spooky situation for us humans because, in many situations where robots fail, we humans have a common sense that would almost never have caused that error. Alien species breed alien error forms.

As for (3), I agree, again. The case here for disagreement is less subtle. AI is simply nowhere near taking over our planet and killing us. But. As I often point out, the real issue is, as AI concentrates power, knowledge and wealth massively in the hands of the few corporations, will they take over (more than they already have)? That is the question. AI is not an existential threat to humanity. But it just might be an existential threat to us anyway!
This brings us to (2). The Economist tries hard to be optimistic about automation and jobs. After all, people will tend to these AI systems, and there will be whole categories of jobs we don’t even know about yet! The Luddite example is brought up, yet again. As is statistics cherry picked from specific examples of automation. A favorite: banks brought ATM machines, but now we have far more small branches. This is true, dear Economist, but that’s not the whole story. Whole sets of interactive kiosks are making human beings redundant in all those tiny branches we are to celebrate. It is always interesting that, in the same article, writers can say that the progress of AI is disruptive now- it is nothing like before; and then in the same breath, that we can extrapolate employment dynamics just the same as prior improvements in machinery. Disruptive or not disruptive? Make up your mind!



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