It has been a while since I did one of these posts. But recently due to the influx of news on artificial intelligence (AI), it got me thinking about how it may affect society. Before we start here, let it be known that I’m not a ‘Luddite’, in fact I have quite a bit of educational background in Computer Science and Database Administration. However the point of the concerns I raise here are to get you the readers thinking and share any solutions you may have found or come up with. Let’s start.
What is an AI?
For those who don’t know what an AI really is, here is a very basic run down. AI is essentially a program built on mathematical algorithms that are meant to emulate human thinking and to a lesser degree, creativity. When we say emulate human thinking, we mean that it should be able to absorb the knowledge that is fed to it, in the case of AI, it can be stored in a database ready for quick access by the AI itself. Meaning as long as storage is available, it can absorb limitless information, at least far more than a human could in one second. Creativity is something that is possible with AIs, but not to the extent that the imagination humans possess due to the current limitations of the mathematical algorithms and hardware. So all in all, true AI is meant to be like a human brain without the limitations of one.
Research into this has been conducted for years now, but it was never brought to the attention of the general public as much as it has been now. In recent years, AI research has advanced significantly. While those looking to the future with glee and technological interest will probably love it, there are concerns that are no doubt raised by this. Below I will outline and discuss some of these concerns.
Society and jobs
The state of jobs around the world varies based on country, economic and societal structure. The health of the economy also contributes. Some places are doing great, some not so good. The places not doing so well are some times unfortunately left alone by their own government in the hopes things will improve naturally. Sadly this is never the case, the economy doesn’t naturally “fix” itself. People must help do that by stimulating it through spending, earning, buying goods and drive supply and demand.
For that to happen, jobs must be plentiful. Where does AI come into this? AI has the potential of replacing humans in several roles currently in place. This is something that may not happen for at least another 20, 30 or even 50 years, but the potential is there.
Let’s take present world for example. Remember all those jobs in factories within the automotive industry? Yeah robots have come and taken over things like car assembly. Before we would need people for that, but not anymore. These robots aren’t necessarily true AI as they are programmed to do one specific task, but the idea of automation coupled with AI should give you an idea of how powerful and destructive that can be if scripted robots are already able to do more than an average humans can.
Society is a fragile concept that is already shaking from terrorism, and the various imperfections plaguing it. Jobs are an essential component to keep the economy, and by effect society going. If jobs were to be taken over and automated by AI, imagine the type of effect that would have on the middle and poor class. The rich maybe able to ride the automation out without much worry, but not the middle and poor class.
Concerns with AI Job takeover
The thinking behind AI right now is that, any job that can be automated should be automated. Any job requiring tactical thinking over creative thinking. AI may have some very minor capabilities for creative thinking, they are just no where near the level of humans in that department as of now. So what does that mean?
Most minimum wage jobs are at risk of being replaced by AI. Any job that has repetitive tasks can be, and will most likely be replaced. Jobs like:
- Retail store clerk (Sales associate, floor associate, cashier, etc.)
- Fast Food workers (that are below the managerial level)
- Customer Service Representatives
- Financial Advisors and Planners (Investment advisors may also be at risk in the future)
- Administrative Assistants
- Virtual Assistants
- Any position below a manager’s level and one that doesn’t require much face to face and creativity in customer service
- and more…
Above I have named just a few jobs. All of them aren’t necessarily minimum wage, but for some of the jobs mentioned, there is already software that can do parts of it. Take accounting for example. Before Accountants had bookkeeping as part of their responsibilities, some places they still do. But now there is software out there like QuickBooks to help you do that. Accountants then can focus on the other aspects of the job while overseeing the software’s results.
Unlike humans, a machine never needs to rest, take breaks to eat, drink water, sleep, go on vacation, ask for a raise or anything of that sort. AI would essentially be the model employee putting humans at a great disadvantage for jobs at a high risk of automation.
Are you in a job you are worried about being automated? Find out here just how much of a risk your job is at: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34066941
The link above is presented from 2015, so it’s quite old but still relevant. If anything, some of those values will most likely have increased by now.
We already see the effects of this in retail and fast food outside of the automotive industry. Let’s look at the larger grocery stores, they have both humans and self-checkout right now. But how long will the human element continue, it’s quite clear that the self-checkouts will take over in the future by slowly increasing their quantity over their human counterparts.
Another example would be McDonalds. They have introduced the self-order kiosks for a while now. This eliminates the need for so many cashiers as the kiosk can operate on less money, and would not need to rest. The only time they can be costly is perhaps when installing, and a major maintenance or a patch job is needed.
There is even an AI robot serving drinks in the Robots Bar and Lounge in Ilmenau, eastern Germany!
Check out this daily mail article for more information on Carl the Bartender Robot: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2379966/Carl-robot-bartender-pours-drinks-customers-German-bar.html
No, this does not mean that every bartender is going to be replaced. What this should tell you is of the potential in robots, AI and automation for these jobs. AI still has a long way to go however before they can get around to replacing bartenders due to the creativity involved in mixing various drinks all the while adding their own little touches to it.
But lets take a look at another job, teaching assistant. That job has many aspects to it, some are repetitive tasks, while others are more intellectual in nature. Well there is a professor who built an AI teaching assistant to help answer student questions using existing technology such as IBM Watson. You can read about it here: http://www.businessinsider.com/a-professor-built-an-ai-teaching-assistant-for-his-courses-and-it-could-shape-the-future-of-education-2017-3
There have even been tests into robots in an official educational setting. For example, there was one in which an AI powered robot was given the lead to teach a class of university students. We are not talking elementary kids, but adults in a university level education. That should say something about the technology, its abilities and the advances people are looking to make with it.
But the most prominent use of AI that I have come across is how some banks in Japan have already started switching over to as human free as possible. Keep in mind though that this is for roles that don’t require much creative thinking and are based around set tasks such as simple bank transactions, getting news on the latest developments in the financial world and banking product information as well as signing up for them. There has also been news of a Japanese Insurance firm replacing some workers with AI. That can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/05/japanese-company-replaces-office-workers-artificial-intelligence-ai-fukoku-mutual-life-insurance
Now, where do concerns come into this exactly?
Below I have listed out some in point format for easier reading:
- If AI has the potential to replace humans, even to the level of CEO as Alibaba’s founder puts it, then what use will there be for humans in the job world? Only creative endeavors may remain, unless AIs develop even beyond human limitations.
- If minimum wage jobs are looking to be completely automated and replaced with robots, what will students looking for part time work to help fuel and control their expenses during studying do? Most decent jobs nowdays require a Bachelor’s even for entry level.
- The technological aspect of the market will grow with AI, but not everyone is suited to tech jobs. What will happen to those left out of a job?
- Is society prepared for such a huge change? We are talking about something like another industrial era here.
- If people are displaced from jobs with little to no sign of being able to once again enter the workforce, what will the government do about them? How will it make sure that there is no growing tensions between the various classes (rich, middle, poor)?
- If AI has the potential to be as smart as it is said to be, then there may come a day where humans are put out of work completely. People talk about the convenience factor more often than not, but what convenience is there if it can’t be afforded?
- Will societies and governments react too late to these changes?
Those are some of my concerns. Now I’m not saying I have the answer to all of the questions posed above, but I do have some ideas to get started. Elon Musk has always been a believer of a set universal income, in which you get money from the government to help maintain a certain standard of living. If you earn anything else, that would be extra income then. In a sense it could be like welfare, but it maybe charged at the same tax level as normal income. This, or something similar is necessary if we are to look into a future where AIs do all the work and humans just kick back.
Another alternative is that while keeping and maintaining most career roles we have today, we supplement them with AI aid. So humans no longer have to engage in the repetitive tasks of their jobs, but instead can focus more on the intellectual, creative and innovative aspects of it. Of course if your jobs is all about repetition, then you are pretty much screwed. However there have been initiatives to fight back the automation and keep people employed. So there is that to consider.
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, how much are you willing to work with an AI?
Are you going to be happy consuming food produced by robotic arms all coded to create the same flavors?
Personally I’m not comfortable with the idea of eating the food produced down to specifications by robots. There is something special about eating food produced by human hands as everyone makes it differently. I can work with AI if it is there to supplement the job, but if it is there to do the job, things can become more difficult. I personally find something disturbing about talking to an AI robot day in and day out. Imagine going to the bank and interacting with an AI to get financial advice. Just imagine talking to that monitor that is coded to respond based on logic and facts. The bit about it being very logical and factual may sound great as there is little room for error in judgement that way, but then what about people whose circumstances are special and require a more emotionally understanding individual?
That connection between human social interaction can never be fully replicated by robots or AI.
Let’s wrap this up
Honestly, what I have said here isn’t even scratching the surface of the issues that are posed with the advent of AI and their potential implementation on a mass level. Here is an interesting article concerning Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking and their rather cautious outlook for AI. It maybe a good read for you: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2907069/Don-t-let-AI-jobs-kill-Stephen-Hawking-Elon-Musk-sign-open-letter-warning-robot-uprising.html
Does this mean that we should all fear, and hate AI and robots? No, they can be very beneficial if implemented properly to work alongside humans. But if they are implemented with the intention of improving, and at one point in the future putting most if not all of humans out of a job, then we damn well better be prepared for that day. Because if we aren’t, humans may have another revolution, or a war on their hands within their own societies.
What are your thoughts on artificial intelligence and its potential effects for the future on society?
Thanks for reading!