Saturday, February 13, 2016

Skynet To Bring Economic Judgment Day?

by JASmius

I'm still skeptical of artificial intelligence actually reaching the level of sentience - sometimes sci-fi concepts do become reality (the vision-phones from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Skype/Internet, Star Trek communicators and cell phones, Star Trek PADDS and smart phones and tablets, etc.), but the really fantastical ones (warp drive, transporters, and yes, artificial life forms) will always be more difficult than we think.

But our machines don't have to go Terminator or Matrix on our organic asses to create a serious vocational conundrum:

Advances in artificial intelligence will soon lead to robots that are capable of nearly everything humans do, threatening tens of millions of jobs in the coming thirty years, experts warned Saturday.

"We are approaching a time when machines will be able to outperform humans at almost any task," said Moshe Vardi, director of the Institute for Information Technology at Rice University in Texas.

"I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?" he asked at a panel discussion on artificial intelligence at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Vardi said there will always be some need for human work in the future, but robot replacements could drastically change the landscape, with no profession safe, and men and women equally affected.

"Can the global economy adapt to greater than 50% unemployment?" he asked.

This evidently is not fearmongering - IF the advances being suggested here can actually be made, AND in the time-frame predicted:

Today, research is focused on the reasoning abilities of machines, and progress in this realm over the past twenty years has been spectacular, said Vardi.

"And there is every reason to believe the progress in the next twenty-five years will be equally dramatic," he said.

By his calculation, 10% of jobs related to driving in the United States could disappear due to the rise of driverless cars in the coming twenty-five years.

According to Bart Selman, professor of computer science at Cornell University, "in the next two or three years, semi-autonomous or autonomous systems will march into our society."

He listed self-driving cars and trucks, autonomous drones for surveillance and fully automatic trading systems, along with house robots and other kinds of "intelligence assistance" which make decisions on behalf of humans.

You can see the economic policy dilemma here (and if you can't, I'm sure you can get your Lieutenant Commander Data-bot to explain it to you): Private industry has every right to utilize the latest technological advances in order to enhance productivity and control labor costs, the latter of which government and Big Labor continue to make an ever more intractable and escalating problem.  Jobs, let me point out again, are not the purpose of private businesses, but a beneficient side effect of them - in essence, employers buy, and employees sell, their skilled or menial labor.  When the system is allowed to function, it's a win-win situation, and has been for close to two centuries.

But if these predictions are correct - and I'm not saying that they will be - the system, the equation, will change.  Not right away, necessarily; any new technological innovation will be more expensive than just hiring a human being to perform the particular function(s) at first.  But eventually, and perhaps relatively quickly, shifting ever upward-spiraling labor costs to fixed depreciation write-offs and predictable repair and maintenance expense on income statements across the country would be the logical and inevitable direction in which the private sector would go.

Again, in the short term.  Because that would bring up the other equation of having prosperous consumers and customers - a market - for the goods and services that private sector companies would be more efficiently producing.  If this process did reach the point of half the workforce being idled (or about an additional ten percent, Obama BLS mythologists not withstanding), that's a lot fewer buyers, which mean a lot less sales revenue, which means all those robots will have to get a lot cheaper, or it won't matter how productive they make their owners.

The question, then, would be what do all of us economically disenfranchised and exiled do?  That's a question very similar to the one with which I've wrestled every single day over the past two and a half years, and I still don't have an answer.  But my issues are ones of professional obsolescence and age - I have a quarter-century of experience, but it appears to no longer be relevant to what employers are looking for, and my age makes my perceived price tag too high.  The AI-related question is more generalized and basic: For what occupations can 125,000,000 people be retrained when intelligent machines are already performing them?  Beats me.  If I was smart enough to have the answer, I wouldn't already be vocationally exiled.

As we've seen, taking the big picture view would lead "Big" (and medium and small) business to not go - or, rather, keep going - the Skynet route.  But since many of them have already been doing so for years, even decades, that's an entrenched trend, and will be difficult to halt.  When they don't halt it, and the forecasted vocational disenfranchisement in favor of the machines does escalate, that will generate the inevitable howls of anti-capitalist outrage - "Feel the Bern," anyone? - the Democrats will politically exploit and benefit from it, and they'll ban all private sector technological advances and force businesses right back into Big Labor's greedy, corrupt, grasping arms.  Which will be the epitome of unconstitutionality and liberal left commie bastard tyranny.

Whatever the details, the bottom line is, it will not end well.

And this is why the technocratic utopia of the United Federation of Planets depicted on Star Trek is prima facie evidence that Gene Roddenberry was either clinically insane or more full of crap than everybody's Aunt Tootie with the fatal bowel blockage.  Trek series and movies and novels have done a wonderful job of explaining how warp drive and transporters and even temporal mechanics and time travel work; but transwarp drive (never even tried), quantum slipstream drive ("benamite crystals," whatever the heck that was) and the UFP's "moneyless" economy?  Not so much.  The closest they ever came to fleshing out the latter was when Picard touched on it with Lilly (Alfre Woodard) in Star Trek VIII: First Contact, and all he said was that in the twenty-fourth century, "We don't concern ourselves with the accumulation of material wealth; we strive to better ourselves".

Which begged all kinds of questions, beginning with how anybody can "better themselves" if they're freezing and starving to death.  The implication from Next Generation is that every home has a matter replicator in it, complete with a matter supply that would, presumably, be connected to the twenty-fourth century answer to the old septic tank for recyling purposes.  The next question is obvious: Who pays for the replicator?  Do you buy it yourself at Best Buy or Replicator City?  How do you pay for it in a moneyless economy?  Or are they issued to each Federation household?  In which case, how does the Federation government pay for them all?  And how do they collect the massive tax revenues to do so if there's no money to be confiscated from Federation taxpayers?  In other words, replicators are machines made from raw materials that have to be assembled and distributed.  They have a cost.  Even if, as is assumed, the assembly and transportation are automated, the raw materials still have to have an intrinsic value, even if minimized.  So who pays that cost, and with what?

Contra Howard Stark in Iron Man II, not everything is possible through technology.  There are economic, political, and human problems that are beyond its reach.  Whether the fabled technological "singularity" of which Stephen Hawking likes to pontificate is or will really be a thing (and if it is, how on Earth did the Trek universe avoid it until the Borg came along?), I think the bottleneck that is "Economic Judgement Day" will strangle it in (methaphorical) utero.

But preferably before the "singularity" is reached - because otherwise, well.....

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