By Tony Yu· On April 19, 2016
Some time ago, humans scattered the earth, honing only two distinct economic skillsets: hunting and gathering. Since then, thousands of years of innovation have yielded a variety of tools and machines to aid in the hard work of hunting and gathering food, thereby freeing up society’s collective resources of time and energy. As such, there has been an increase in the amount of time afforded to individuals in seeking pursuits other than those necessary for survival, such as building upon our common knowledge and further advancing technology. When people do not have to constantly worry about self-sustenance through fulfilling their basic needs, they focus on specialization, leaving everyone better off. This cycle of innovation is ultimately what drives economic development and how standards of living rise.
The aforementioned tools and machinery were accessories that helped humans develop and create what they wanted, and in less time and with less energy inputted. The objective of automation is to cut labour costs, as well as save energy and material inputs while improving quality, accuracy, and precision. Physical labour has always been the focus of technological advancements — how we can create mechanical muscles to replace human muscles.
Historically speaking, every major economic revolution in the past has targeted the physical aspect of work. The industrial revolution brought upon a massive upheaval of the manufacturing processes, making strides in development of steam power and factory systems: what we now understand as automation. Again, these changes were purely focused on the physical aspect of work. Many economists agree that we are once again entering a major economic revolution. This time, however, the focus is not on mechanical muscles, but rather on mechanical minds.
The robotic revolution
To a degree, the general population is aware of the seemingly incremental changes to the labour market as a result of ‘robots’ in the past decade. Checkout clerks at grocery stores are becoming increasingly rare, being replaced by the much more efficient and cost-effective cashier robot. Some fast-food goers remark that they’ve begun simply inputting their orders through a self-serve ordering robot. Again, a seemingly innocent example of societal progression through replacing manual-labour jobs with automated machines.
These are not the robots that will be discussed in this article.
When Deep Blue, IBM’s genius computer, defeated reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov in a game of chess in 1997, AI (Artificial Intelligence) captured the mind and imagination of the general public. Strategy games, though seemingly trivial, are actually a crucial test of computer intelligence. The AI must be able to comprehend the game dynamics outside of just raw calculation of what the opponent will do — the AI must, in effect, think like a human in order to triumph.
Therein lies the humanistic component that our species so greatly values, which is the ability to learn and to think creatively. However, chess was not the pinnacle of achievement for AIs.
The ancient game of Go, with the number of possible game combinations exceeding the number of atoms in the universe, was long seen as a game of undeniable skill. One way to think of it is to view chess as a logic based game, whereas Go is very much described as a more intuitive game, hence the humanistic aspect of it.
In January of 2016, European Go Champion Fan Hui lost five times in a row to AlphaGo, a computer program developed by Google. This outcome was doubted to come into fruition for at least another 10 years by experts due to the complexity of the game and the creative instincts that must come into play in order for a player to be successful.
Mechanical minds aren’t just being tested in the waters by casual board games — they are here, and they are already deeply rooted in our job markets. Many articles and journals have been, in part, put together by bots who’ve learned the nuances of natural writing through recognizing patterns in thousands of previous articles. The New York Stock Exchange floor is no longer filled with traders trading with other traders; rather, it is now mostly a television set — the real trading happens largely with bots trading with other bots.
You may recall an AI named Watson developed by IBM. He defeated players in Jeopardy back in 2011, but his real purpose is to give accurate medical diagnoses through sifting through large databases of information, looking for patterns in colloquial and natural languages. In this regard, he is able to proactively learn information not directly coded into his original programing.
From this ability to replicate a human mind, not even creative jobs are safe from the economic force that is on the horizon.
What the future holds
Humans cannot simply assume that more jobs will be created as a result of greater capacities in technology. In fact, the top 33 most popular jobs in 2016 all existed in some form a hundred years ago, meaning that the bulk of our current job market consists of easy-to-replace traditional jobs. Furthermore, this indicates that these jobs have been relatively steady in their demand throughout the century — the computer revolution didn’t radically create new jobs in the labour market during the 1980s.
From blue collar jobs, to white collar jobs, to professional jobs, all the way to creative jobs — no profession is definitively safe from this revolution. In fact, the issue at hand is not whether or not all jobs will be taken by robots; the question is how we, as a society, will respond to the inevitable event that a significant portion of the job market is rendered unemployable due to no fault of their own, but from the economically rational choice to substitute them with robots. Automation is a tool to create abundance with little effort, but its frightening capability to systematically crowd humans out of employment puts our society at a crossroads.
The greatest question that the world must solve is how it will adapt its economic systems to accommodate the robots. The issue of employability versus progression in a society abundant in creation is unsustainable on the pillars of modern capitalism. As such, we must ask ourselves: what will come to fruition in the next century that will facilitate the evolution of a new structure of society?
Will this new structure see the emergence of luxury communism, in which infinite abundance is simply created by robots, and all society needs to do is have a government to manage this system and then sit back to reap the rewards? This logic seems sound in theory, but friction from current systems and political complexities may change the trajectory of how our future plays out.
All of this may seem distant, but the bots are here, and they are progressing faster than we can currently comprehend. What we must decide now, collectively, is what we will do to answer their call to action.