Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Robots are Coming­­

Hal, Open the Pod Bay Doors”
“I can’t do that, Dave.”

Arthur C. Clarke, 2001, A Space Odyssey

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be
the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks.”

Stephen Hawking

The autumn has come to Vermont.   The trees turn red and yellow, leaves floating to the ground and we are getting ready to head south.

Tonight, it will be 38° and the fireplace is blazing primaevally.

The media, consumed with the Kavanaugh confirmation potential sex scandal, fails to address the issues that are crucial to America.  No one seems to be paying attention to Artificial Intelligence, climate change, technological displacement of workers and what America will look like thirty years from now.  There is a shortage of vision in the political class or an examination how candidates feel about these overwhelming issues.

All around the world, scientific and technological advances render our current system of government increasingly challenging.  Even the abolition of the Electoral College cannot gain any traction, not to mention the quality of people making decisions affecting our daily lives and well-being.  Entire classes of workers are becoming irrelevant and even expendable. And no one in the political class speaks about these issues.  The media is distracted by whether the president of the United States will get his money to build a wall on the Rio Grande, and, in fact whether he will be impeached by a new congress.

Existential questions are asked in a new book by Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli author of the critically acclaimed Sapiens, Homo Deus, and now, 21 Lessons for the 21st century.

What will America look like 30-50 years from now?  How will we provide income to those who become irrelevant, replaced by machines?  How will those in that category make a living, fill their days, and fundamentally alter the American and international political landscape?

Increasingly evident to thinkers who look to the future are those questions as well as the fact that our government may not, as presently structured, be suitable for governance. For example, they see that the people who elect politicians cannot even reach a consensus on climate change.  Some place short term goals such as lower taxes, corporate profits and employment above what the long-term goal should be to deal with massive unemployment in an increasingly unemployable work force.  People who have already been displaced in coal mines, steel mills, farms, ranches and automobile assembly lines, and have grown enraged, blaming immigration when 80% of the jobs lost have been lost to technological changes and to automation. Companies that used to employ hundreds of thousands now can make more money with a tenth of the work force and be even more productive.

Others fail to see the implications of artificial intelligence disrupting the economy and lives of people who will never be able to find employment.  Computers may not become sentient beings, but they certainly will be more competent in using algorithms to diagnose disease, drive vehicles, and do other tasks amenable to processing large amounts of data; this list grows exponentially. 

Throughout history, societies have been riven by changes in technology. For example, our democratic institutions, crafted in the 18th century may no longer be workable in governing our society.   Will democracy give way to a more efficient form of government?   In China, an entire new infrastructure is being built without the messy decisions of a democratic process.  Will representative democracy survive the change?  If, for example, Harari argues, do passengers on a jetliner take a vote on whether the pilot should pull up on the throttle, or is better to leave the intricacies of governmental decision-making to experts in their fields?

In the 18th century, our constitution created a system allowing a government whereby white land-owning people elected representatives to represent them and stated that all people were entitled to the “pursuit of happiness.”   Does that mean that people should not have to work on boring jobs that are only done for money?  Is happiness a logical pursuit in a society that requires people to work on jobs they do not like?  It is quite possible that happiness will be achieved by a new leisure class resembling the British aristocracy, hunting pheasants, and playing polo, machines having taken over the drudgery of work and creating greater productivity than ever before, but at the same time displacing workers.  The irrelevance of workers succumbs, therefore, to a new definition of the pursuit of happiness and possibly a guaranteed annual income for those who can no longer work.

None of today’s candidates have articulated a view, Harari argues, that considers the three most important challenges to society:  Nuclear war, climate change, and technological displacement through AI.   Will intelligent robots displace 80% of the workforce, and thereby generate violent revolutionary change?

Politicians seeking office today need to answer these questions before they are elected.  Politicians of both parties look at these pressing issues as though it might be how a unicorn spends its time.   Long term issues of humanity are nowhere in the political dialog the crux of which is how does Trump keep his hair so orange, his television viewing habits or how often he golfs with his criminal contingent.

Ok, so Trump is a criminal, or an unindicted co-conspirator, or a Russian money launderer.  How is that going to help us on these large looming threats?  Nuclear War, Technological displacement, or climate change and rising seas?

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