Tonight I was with a collection of very smart people. All successful on Wall Street, all well into their careers. As the discussion turned to my work and looking at the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI)/ automation and its impact on our humanity, invariably, they are skeptical about machines replacing humans in the task of work. In fact, each one uses the same fall back argument, which seems to be the “go to” argument that people make when faced with the question of technological unemployment. “People have been afraid of job losses in the past and technology always creates new jobs”
And I understand that argument. I also support that argument, one need look no further than the job title of “Social Media coordinator” or “Web Development specialist” to realize that those jobs would not have even been considered in the mid 90’s. So let’s be clear, I promise that the advancement of technology will create new jobs for humans and I do not suggest that we should in any way limit the advancement of technology. Have I been clear? Does everyone understand that I know new jobs will be created and that I don’t want to hinder technology’s advancement.
Now, can we tackle the actual issue. AI and Robotics, unlike all technology before is replacement level stuff. More importantly, the goal of each AI/Automation advancement is looking directly at human behavior and trying to replicate it. The belief is simple. Machines make less errors than human beings do and Machines work 24/7 unlike human beings. Using that simple math (ceteris paribus), we should all agree that a machine that can complete the activity of the equivalent human is preferable. So here is the question I would like each of you to consider carefully and thoughtfully. What are the activities in your daily work which you believe a machine will NEVER be able to do?
Now before you answer, consider a few things. There are already machines creating art work, machines writing symphonies, machines flying airplanes and machines manufacturing microscopic mini machines. We have machines doing brain surgery, machines diagnosing tumors and machines predicting the weather. So as you analyze the tasks that you do and the skills that you exercise to accomplish those tasks, do you truly believe that a machine will not be able to do that task in the future?
You may genuinely believe that there is a portion of your job that the machine can’t do, but I guarantee there is a guy somewhere in Silicon Valley or in Tokyo, or in Shanghai or in Berlin, who looked at your task and is trying right now to develop a machine that can replicate that task. Can AI/Automation do every task as well as a human? Of course not, that is why we have machine learning, not machine learned… These systems are in their infancy and they are learning with exponential speed — speed which is unmatched in the human experience. When people hear me talk, sometimes they think I am anti-technology, when I am the exact opposite. I believe so much in humanity’s ability to advance technology, that I believe most tasks, will be replicated by machines and accomplished more efficiently and more cheaply than by humans. This isn’t necessarily what is best for humans, but those are unintended consequences and best left to a different blog post.
But let’s go back to you. Think about the tasks you do each day, what elements of your job cannot be replicated? Is there something special that is happening with your physical dexterity that a robot can’t match? Is there a specific set of thoughts or combination of thoughts, which a machine can’t mimic? The level of uniqueness that a person must feel to believe that the things that they do are not more than learned electrical impulses with 10–50 years of practice, would be truly special indeed.
Don’t get me wrong, humanity has many special qualities, but the things that make up work, rarely encompass those special qualities which I have listed a few of below:
I am sure there are a few others, like love, that people will offer up, but I would beg to differ on love and relationship-type differentiation. There are aspects of love, the things we do to demonstrate our love, which are highly replicable by machines. I am very comfortable with the idea that many people will not be able to experience love with or from a machine. But I hope that you would grant that there will be people who also believe they love a machine.
AI and Automation developers are already creating extremely life-like machines designed as companions for people who are ill, disabled or experience social disorders. The Sex industry advances the touch and feel of these machines. The medical industry advances cybernetics and materials to replace human tissue. When combined over the next decade with improvements neural nets, machine learning and quantum computing, we will find that machines will become reasonable proxies for humans. These machines will continue to improve their intellects and emotional capabilities as well. Over time they will earn trust and respect from people. Trust and respect are key elements in human relationships, which are either granted at the outset of a relationship or earned over time through positive, repetitive reinforcement. Learning thru repetition is a machine expertise. Finally, because of their input/output capabilities, these machines will be able to learn at an astounding rate compared to humans. So I ask you one final time to consider the tasks that you do in your job, which of those will a machine not be able to replace in the coming decade or two?
When you reach the conclusion which I have; that most “work” can be replaced by machines, now imagine that world. It’s different, it’s scary, it’s wonderful, it’s boring, it has freedom, it has slavery but most importantly it is VASTLY different from today’s world and it will change society completely. This is my concern. This is what I ask you to consider. I hope that you will join me in the preparation for the challenges to our society from AI and Automation.