Robots and Artificial Intelligence Are Going to Radically Change Life as We Know It

A recent New York Times editorial, No, Robots Aren’t Killing the American Dream, misjudges the impact of robots and artificial intelligence. The editorial states the problem isn’t automation per se. Rather, it is an inequitable distribution of the profits created by it. The authors claim

While breakthroughs could come at any time, the problem with automation isn’t robots; it’s politicians, who have failed for decades to support policies that let workers share the wealth from technology-led growth.

As an example they point out

When productivity led to vast profits in America’s auto industry, unions ensured that pay rose accordingly.

However, the sentence above needs to add, “for the workers that were left” at the end. Pay certainly didn’t increase for the people the auto industry let go in favor of robots. Ironically, an earlier article in the Times made this exact point.

It’s Not Your Grampa’s Automation Anymore

It is certainly true that over the last 40 years, wages for non-management workers remained stagnant. At the same time those at the top claimed an increasing share of the profits. An increase in automation produced those increased profits, at least in part. But a more equitable distribution of the profits won’t solve the impact of automation. Robots and artificial intelligence will soon take over almost all work. The old adage that automation just changes the type of work people do doesn’t hold water anymore. As noted tech luminary Elon Musk said, “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better.” The combination of automation and AI can now do just about anything humans can do better, faster, and cheaper. Musk knows what he’s talking about: his first company, Tesla, develops self-driving cars. His next company, Space X, develops highly intelligent, reusable rockets for space travel.

Deep Blue, Watson, and Beyond

Twenty years ago IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer famously beat the reigning chess champion, Gary Kasparov, in a 6-game match. Five years ago, Watson, the computing offspring of Deep Blue, beat trivia gods Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy. This tax season, H&R Block is licensing Watson to help their seasonal in-house tax preparers. If Watson|Block proves it can save clients more money and process more returns, human preparers will get dumped and profits will take off. Larger competitors will eventually follow suit, and most small biz tax prep firms will go out of business.

Is Universal Basic Income the Answer?

All of this is why the concept of a universal basic income, supported by people like Musk, is starting to gain traction. As this article by David Tuffley explains

Put simply, a UBI is a pump-priming minimum income that is unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without any means test or work requirement. It eliminates the poverty traps that the poor fall into when welfare payments have many conditions and are administered by large and inflexible bureaucracies.

However, UBI is not necessarily a panacea. It is certainly possible to implement UBI in a manner that keeps people living at a subsistence level. A more utopian version of UBI frees people entirely from working in order to survive. They could then pursue activities that raise everyone up to a more fulfilling existence. UBI experiments are already underway in several countries such as Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands. We’ll see how those go. Who knows, perhaps a system in which robots manage the production and distribution of all essential goods and services, keeping quality high and preventing the system from being corrupted by people, could work.

Get Ready

Way back in 1950 Isaac Asimov explored robots and artificial intelligence in his short story compilation, I, Robot. In the 2006 movie, a character asks a robot whether a robot can write a symphony, or turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece. The robot’s rejoinder is, “Can you?” But we now live in a world where AIs can now beat humans at highly complex games like Go and poker. It’s only a matter of time before the answer to those questions becomes “yes,” and (for most of us) “no.” The only remaining question about the potential of robots and artificial intelligence to displace human workers will be “When?”