Monday, June 10, 2013

Educational Necessities in the Brave New World



The three laws of robotics:

1.  A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2.  A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Isaac Asimov, "Runaround"  (1942)


I know a few people who have interesting theories why American cities and society are in a state of decay, evincing a huge disparity of rich and poor.    Some of these technocratic people believe that uneducated masses are not able to compete in an increasingly mathematically meritocratic environment.  They believe that because these non-pocket protector dullards are not educated in math, science, engineering or physical science, they will fail, they will be subject to the whims of other societies with more technically adept citizens who can win the coming math-a-thon.

There is a superficial element of truth in this premise.   But this is only a temporary transitional phase in the journey of mankind. 

The world of new technology, they say, favors those scientifically trained; the people who lack that education will become increasingly unemployable.  But that only forebodes a perhaps even more ambivalent human dénouement.

Those who argue that the uneducated will be obliged to inhabit an unteremenschen sector of the economy, doomed to flip burgers or wait tables fail to recognize that even some classes of those educated in science and technology can also easily be  made unemployable and probably and inevitably will involuntarily be cast among their more less accomplished brethren.

This class of putative elites will be replaced by artificially intelligent machines that are exponentially increasing their abilities to learn, to work--to think.   These machines are being engineered to make human technologic endeavor obsolete.  They will be inevitably more competent than humans in calculations, engineering, equations, and any process that requires any form of mathematical skill.  The skills will go beyond mathematics.   In some respects they already do.
These machines are our children, our progeny, our descendents.  No human can compete with a machine that does not die, that does not fail, that has no biologic or moving parts--a machine that can endure infinitely through self-maintenance, artificially obtained intelligence and self-replication.  The precursors to these machines are here already although still somewhat primitive in form.  The machines that answer the phone and ask us questions, that asks us to make choices, the robots that assemble cars, and a plethora of devices that have already replaced humans on the assembly line, in the bank, in the hospital and elsewhere.  

They are more and more ubiquitous every day. 

Anyone over 50 can remember what it was like before computers.  Statements about science and technology requirements for human employment made today will have no bearing perhaps as early as ten or fifteen years from now.  Admittedly, one would need that knowledge to get a job today, but we are not convinced that it will do any good as an exponential explosion of computing and robotic power will make the average human mathematician or engineer as unnecessary as a buggy whip.  Already machines make medical diagnoses, beat humans at chess, and even play "Jeopardy" better than humans. Playing Jeopardy requires subtle understanding of plays on words, social nuance, and irony.   While it is true that scientifically trained humans created these machines, these benevolent Frankensteins will ultimately take over all human scientific endeavor.  Cyborgs will be programmed with the total sum of human knowledge; humans may remain their creators, but it is not certain they will remain their masters.

Humanities, philosophy, music and art will be what distinguish human from machine and even then we are not so certain.  The law will protect us (see Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, above) and remain even more relevant than ever before.  But probably not in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Will machines compose symphonies? Pour their emotions out on great works of art?  Feel pain? Be spiritual?  Or will that be left to humans?

Emotions and feelings are not something in which machines are conversant.