July 25, 2017
Today’s news is that Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have opposing views of the future of Artificial Intelligence.
Musk says, “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not — they were harmful to a set of individuals within society, of course, but they were not harmful to society as a whole.” Musk’s concerns start with driverless vehicles and a wide variety of blue collar and white collar jobs he expects to be lost. Then, he extends to the potential for criminal use, even use to start wars.
Zuckerberg responds, “I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios — I don’t understand it. It’s really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible.”
In a previous post entitled Better World or Worse World, I examine a variety of elements of the present and future global condition, noting that computers, artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning have the potential for significant disruption. In Good News and Bad News, I note that we face the potential that 5 million drivers of vehicles are likely to lose their jobs to driverless technology as it advances across the next 10-20 years, very soon. There are estimates that as much as 47% of US jobs are vulnerable to technological replacement. Musk thinks even more.
I’m privileged to be a Fellow in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative this year. My favorite professor, an expert on inequality, and I had a discussion about the future of technology at the end of the Spring semester. I took the view that Musk expresses. He took the Zuckerberg view. I don’t want to be a pessimist. Really I don’t. But as much as I respect my professor, I have two problems with the optimistic view about all this. One problem is lack of any specifics as to how those 5 million will recover good jobs, jobs paying the $62,931 average pay for truck drivers. Second, in the absence of any logical explanation for replacement jobs, I find it hard to understand failing to plan for the possible downside.
The common “explanation” for the positive scenario is based on nothing other than history. Reference is made to the agricultural/industrial transformation in the 20th century. In the late 19th Century, more than 50% of Americans worked on farms. Today, with mechanization, we only require 2% of Americans as workers on farms, to provide far more quantity and much higher quality food than was produced in 1900. The argument is that the citizens of 1900 could not have predicted how the large agricultural cohort of labor would be absorbed into the advancing industrial economy. But, it happened. Of course, the transition was disruptive and painful, but across a few decades, new opportunities of work for most did evolve. One only wonders whether government planning and action might have alleviated some of the pain. Think Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. And this says nothing about the criminal and dark side possibilities of technology advancement–e.g., robot and drone warriors.
So, maybe, just maybe, there will be some kind of yet unimaginable transition from the industrial economy to the digital economy, the knowledgeable economy. I certainly acknowledge it is theoretically possible for a wide variety of new opportunities for creative work being unleashed by advancing artificial intelligence and related technology. I certainly hope so.
But I don’t want to see a big segments of the next generation suffer through a transition that has no attempt at planning or support for those to be displaced during the change. I watched such an unassisted transition take place in my hometown of High Point, North Carolina, when virtually the entire textile and furniture industries abruptly moved to China in the 1990s, and government did nothing to help workers move, find other employment, or gain new skills. The US was all about globalization and open borders then. I suppose government was taking the optimistic view–things will work out in time.
I don’t see how we can justify taking the optimistic view about the future of technology, unless we actively plan to do our best to anticipate the problems and prepare proper protections and assistance for the displaced. Isn’t this what government should be doing–trying to prepare the nation for the future?