There is a lot of talk about Artificial Intelligence and the potential it has to help civilisation – but there are also a lot of fears around AI and how robots could ‘steal our jobs’ or even turn on the very humans that made them! We recently spoke to Calum Chace, a sought-after speaker and best-selling writer on artificial intelligence, focusing on the medium and long-term impact of AI on all of us as individuals, societies and economies, about his thoughts on AI, singularities and what the rise of the robots could mean for humanity and business.
I believe the 21st century is the best time ever to be a human – so far, and for most of us. It is also the most interesting time to be alive – and the most important. We face serious challenges, but if we face them and overcome them, our future is glorious. Because this is the century of two singularities.
In maths and physics, a singularity is a point in a process where a variable becomes infinite, and the normal rules break down. For instance, at the centre of a black hole, the gravitational field becomes infinite, and the laws of physics just stop working. So the word “singularity” is a superlative for disruption and transformation.
The most profound singularity is known as the technological singularity, which will happen if and when we create an artificial general intelligence (AGI) – an AI with all the cognitive abilities of an adult human. Because AIs can be expanded and enhanced in ways that our brains cannot, the AGI will quickly become a superintelligence.
First, there is the little matter of making sure that the first superintelligence really likes and understands humans. This is not a trivial task, but we probably have a couple of generations to complete it.
We must succeed, for if we fail, extinction is not the worst possible outcome. Before we reach the technological singularity, we will face another stiff challenge. My book “The
Economic Singularity” argues that in the next few decades most humans will become unemployable because machines (AI systems plus their peripherals, the robots) will be able to do anything that we can do for money cheaper, faster and better. And, unlike us, their capabilities will be improving all the time. At an exponential rate, if not faster.
Most economists say this is the Luddite Fallacy, named after the 19th-century gangs who smashed machines in England during the early industrial revolution. The economists are right to point out that, so far, automation has not caused lasting unemployment (unless you were a horse.) Instead, it has made production processes cheaper and more efficient, creating more wealth, and therefore more jobs. They assume the new wave of automation by AIs will do the same.
Maybe they are right: the truth is, we just don’t know yet. But it seems unlikely: machines are now able to recognise and classify faces better than humans. They are catching up fast in speech recognition and they are also making rapid progress with natural language processing. These capabilities are what most people rely on to earn their daily bread – service industries now comprise by far the largest part of most developed economies. Robots are also improving quickly, and it is hard to see how most manual jobs in factories, warehouses and elsewhere will still be done by humans a few decades from now.
If you doubt this, consider the power of exponential growth. Moore’s Law is the observation that computers improve exponentially – they get twice as powerful every 18 months. To illustrate what this means, imagine taking 30 steps: you will travel about 30 metres. If you could take 30 exponential steps you would travel to the moon. To be more precise, your 29th step would take you to the moon: your 30th step would bring you all the way home. Exponential growth is incredibly powerful, and it is back-loaded. AI is impressive today, but we have seen none of its real potential yet.
Economists argue that we will work ever more closely with these immensely capable machines, contributing uniquely human characteristics like creativity. Unfortunately, most of us are not exceptionally creative in our daily jobs, and it is not true that computers cannot be creative. Creativity is the combining of two or more ideas in a novel way, and it is not true that you have to be conscious or human to do that. The DeepMind system which taught itself to play Atari video games displayed creativity when it invented a new way to win at Breakout.
A world of widespread unemployability does not have to be a bad thing – in fact, it could be wonderful. A world in which robots do all the (mostly boring) jobs could be one where humans are free to get on with the important business of life: playing, socialising, exploring, learning, and having fun. Is it really the pinnacle of human aspiration to be an actuary or a delivery girl for Amazon?
Technological unemployment will not arrive in the next five years, and probably not in the next ten. But if it is going to happen in the next 20 years, there will be a panic well before then as people realise what is coming. That panic could have terrible consequences, like the election of truly appalling populist politicians. We must prevent that panic by developing a plan for what to do if and when it becomes apparent that technological unemployment is coming. Economists and policymakers, please note.
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