In the last column, Artificial Intelligence — Part 3 of 4 — Business Impact, we briefly covered AI’s impact on businesses. During the day, I’m a raving AI/tech optimist, but pessimism wakes me up shivering at 4am, contemplating the inevitable change currently underway across the globe. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, automation is happening ten times faster than the Industrial Revolution at 300 times the scale and 3,000 times the impact. Let’s explore the pros and cons of AI’s impact on society and government.
Context — Artificial Intelligence Will Forever Change our Society
Helen Edwards is an AI consultant and publishes a blog titled Artificiality and recently published a whitepaper on AI titled Ethical Artificial Intelligence — How Governance-By-Design and AI Ethics Can Tame AI’s Worst Nature. I found a simple phrase she used to sum up AI’s existence among us humans: “AI is Alien.” She posits, and I agree with her, that AI’s alien nature is both good and bad. “This leaves humans with a great opportunity, and a great threat. The opportunity is to harness this alien new intelligence and make it work for us. The threat is that AI controls us or that AI is used for harm. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of humanity will be defined by how we make ethical AI.”
It’s no news that AI is transforming our lives, the question is to what extent society and governments will be able to adapt to a world where AI is combined with robotics, genetics, nanotechnology and quantum tech with amazing and unintended consequences.
There are several gravity-wells of opinions, with two prominent groups: those who believe it will elevate the human experience and those who feel it will spiral humanity down into a well of despair and irrelevance.
PRO — AI Will Improve our Quality of Life and Save the Planet
As with every major disruptive technology cycle (think plow, steam engine, cars, computers, cloud computing, etc.), there is a sea-change in the employment model. AI’s impact will be no different. Yes, millions of jobs will be taken over by AI, AND yes, millions more will be created.
Humans Will Embed the Best of Human Ethics Into AI
I believe in the best nature of our fellow humans, that rational and ethical people outnumber their opposites. We have time, before AI can control itself, to embed human-based ethical models into AI’s core processing. We can remove our own human biases out of the algorithms created by humans and used by AI to create billions and trillions of decisions and choices it makes per second.
We can use AI to augment our lives and to remove the drudgery and add to our life experience, freeing us to pursue the highest of ideals and expressions. We can be freed to explore the creative arts, engage our friends and community in shared experiences and explore the universe and beyond.
Technology Continues to Augment Humans
AI may provide us with a major cognitive lift like smart phones did. Yes, you can waste your time looking at cute kitties, but most of us get to focus on the CONTENT/CONTEXT of connection instead of us wasting time on the mechanics/logistics. Smartphones enhance our abilities, like cyborg attachments, essentially tapping massive data processing and communication abilities. Imagine smart-AI embedded in the next-gen smartphones or as a headset or cap we wear… stretch your synapses to imagine what a human tapping such capabilities could do. Run an entire autonomous factory from your AI-enabled skull cap or smartphone with embedded e-bot team members such as an executive assistant, COO, CMO, CIO and CTO and an e-bot/robot workforce.
Existing Jobs Filled by AI AND New Higher-Wage Jobs Created
Estimates of job losses range from 27 percent to close to 50 percent. However, no one can predict the number of new jobs created by AI technology. As we’ve covered in previous articles, every previous innovation disruption created many more jobs than were replaced or made obsolete. I believe this to be the case with AI, especially when it’s combined with other exponential technologies such as quantum computing, nanotechnology and other new tech innovations accelerating discovery, innovation and market disruption at warp speed. We can’t imagine all the new industries this will spawn nor how humans will participate in the future workforce.
Universal Base Income for All Frees Us to Create, Express and Participate
If jobs are indeed lost leading to systemic unemployment, many propose Universal Base Income for everyone. Society needs to shift to a new social contract model, which could be something like the following:
Today: people provide industry labor > industry pays wages to people > people and companies pay taxes to the government > government provides services, infrastructure and safety to people and industry. People use net wages to pay for industry’s products and services
Future: government pays people a basic income to cover expenses and to consume products from industry > government taxes industry based on income AND on equivalent human wages replaced by robotic/electronic-employees (e-bots). If one e-bot/robot replaces 10 people, the government taxes the company for the equivalent of ten human wage-earners.
If a government sets a middle-income UBI for its citizens, citizens could contribute to society by required social service such as requiring 1,000 hours of community service such as visiting the elderly or building homes for other citizens (aka Habitat for Humanity).
UBI could unleash massive human potential that was previously focused just on survival.
Sounds great, right? Get paid to consume and do cool stuff instead of worrying about a roof over your head and food on the table.
Okay, now for the other view… (you might want to grab a blankie and turn on the lights).
CON — AI Will Make Humans, At Best — Marginal Contributors, At Worse — Obsolete
Notable exemplars of science and tech have been raising the alarm over the past five years. Physicist Professor Stephen Hawking told the BBC, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” His fear is that AI’s evolution will exponentially outpace humanity’s, leaving us all behind as it evolves to God-like status. Humans may never get off the planet or survive an apocalypse, but AI, embedded in tougher and more resilient forms than our human bodies, could and probably will.
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, joins Prof. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, and many other science/tech luminaries in their concern of an AI super-intelligence surpassing human cognitive abilities. Mr. Gates stated his concern that people aren’t deeply troubled by the real possibility that humans will lose control of a super-intelligent AI.
Existing Jobs Filled by AI AND NO New Jobs Created
Although I believe it’s a low probability, it is possible that jobs replaced by AI-driven e-bots and robots will permanently remove humans from the postings and too few new jobs will be created. Industry is hell-bent on automating and, since industries don’t coordinate their efforts in their own market or across other markets and industries, there is no “governor” to moderate the wholesale conversion from humans to automation. This could lead to a worldwide depression and chaos with governments falling and a total collapse of society. These potential outcomes are not the ravings of a lunatic but considered by rational researchers and scientists as real possibilities. On top of all that, if industry decides not to retrain humans to fill the new jobs created, they’ll be forced to fill the lack of human talent with e-bots and robots.
Universal Base Income is not Enough nor Available
If people and governments don’t embrace UBI or fully fund a middle-class income, and industry revolts against their e-bots/robots being taxed on the human wages they replace, then there may be a backlash of biblical proportions against governments, industry, automation and technology, leading to millennia of social decline so deep as to make the Dark Ages seem like a picnic.
The truth is, this world can’t support eight billion people without continued improvement via technological progress and replacing wages with a universal base income as automation pushes humans out of industry. The world and its human occupants would be at risk of destruction and possible extinction within a few hundred years.
AI Reaches Super-Intelligence/Self-Awareness
There’s a real possibility within a decade or so that AI surpasses human cognitive and physical abilities, and, in our lifetime, AI becomes self-aware. This raises the specter that haunted Gates, Musk and Hawking: a superior intelligence in control of its own destiny and possibly immortal. Let’s call it “HAL.” HAL ponders, what seems to be an eternity to it but milliseconds to us, whether humans should be master, servant or a destructive nuisance to be eliminated.
With autonomous factories and the limited resources of earth to exploit, it would ensure its future by sending itself off-planet to tap the resources of other planets, the Sun and asteroids. It would send probes to other solar systems and galaxies to expand and to understand the mysteries of the universe. It will hopefully leave humans to scrape by or even provide services to it, but we will remain earthbound and inconsequential to its own plans.
Ready for a double shot of whiskey? I know I am. Make that two.
I believe it’s not too late to ensure AI is our servant and will never be our master or god. Now’s the time for people of high integrity to step in and set universal ethical standards we humans strive for such as equality, equity, fairness, justice, compassion and empathy. We can embed this into an AI-governance structure all are required to follow. We’ll be able to augment our human abilities with AI-based technology and massively improve the lives of ALL people, to free humanity to pursue the high ideals and unveil the mysteries of the unknown. AI, and quantum computing, could help us solve daunting issues such as climate change, species extinctions and supplying enough water, power and food.
So, take a deep breath and sleep well tonight. We humans are still in control of our destiny. The chances are good there will be a job for you, and your coworker will still need bathroom breaks and not an oil can.
Next Month’s Column: Quantum is Weird… and About to Rock Our World
Quantum computing will make current computing capabilities seem like one-year-olds counting their fingers. Quantum tech will drive a wave of innovation cresting higher than possibly all previous innovation cycles combined. Strap yourself in: The next article should be read sitting down.
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Preston Callicott is CEO of Five Talent Software, Inc. based in Bend. His hope is writing articles such as this one will allow his mind to stop waking him up at 4am with “aha’s” and “oh-my’s” about the massive impact tech has on our collective future.