Robots: Magic to Manic to Toxic

How can mankind prevail in the face of such exponential and encompassing technological change?

Each new development comes at a cost. We frequently witness the dawn of a new era at the expense of the old, such as the Iron Age following the Bronze, which itself followed the Stone Age. The advent of the Industrial Revolution wiped out the livelihood of millions, such as cobblers and weavers who were forced to adapt or be left behind, and this dynamic process continues today, only now at a much faster rate. In this era of ‘The New Machine Age’, we enter a dramatical phase where even highly skilled jobs are at risk, and where there will be increasing technology and potentially decreasing jobs.

The realities of the new Machine Age are becoming clear and we can use them to chart the challenging yet abundant economy that we are creating. According to research at Oxford University, almost one out of every two jobs has a high risk of being automated by machines. Machine Learning, the most powerful branch of Artificial Intelligence, is the technology which is to be blamed for this alarming disruption. It basically permits machines to learn from data and mimic some of the routine jobs that we humans perform, but much more efficiently. And, evidently, this can prove game-changing or extremely problematic.

A recent study from Forrester Research goes so far as to predict that 25 million jobs might disappear over the next decade. To put that in perspective, that is three times as many as jobs lost in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis. In fact, 87% of the lost manufacturing jobs have been eliminated as a result of improvements to our own productivity through automation. Automation is spreading to every production sector in every country around the globe. Output in the manufacturing sector in the US is actually growing, but we are losing jobs and lots of them. In fact, from 2000-2010, 5.7 million manufacturing jobs were lost to machines.

It’s not just the blue-collar jobs that are at risk, even those at the top of the ladder, including the highest-paid people, will be affected. What is clear that no matter whatever your job, at least some of it will be done by a robot in the future.

Is that the reason why visionaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are talking about government-funded minimum income levels? By the time today’s elementary school students are college-aged, we could be living in a robotic world largely unemployed and stuck in an ‘ungreat depression’.

All of this is supplemented by the dangers of technological advancement beyond automation and job replacement. Consider the tasks that are now done by a phone. Navigating a strange city? Impossible without Google Maps. Can’t decide where to take your next trip? MakeMyTrip will tell me. No time to answer all my texts? Siri will do it for me. These “artificial brains” are modifying quickly from knowing me to representing me to being me. In fact, they are starting to become an e-copy of us—and if that thought is not yet disturbing, imagine the power of this digital human amplified 100x in the next five years.

Suppose we give an AI programme the goal to make humans smile. When the AI is weak, it causes humans to smile by performing normal amusing actions. However, when the AI is super intelligent, it realises there is a more effective way to achieve this goal: take control of the world and stick electrodes into the facial muscles of humans to cause constant, beaming grins. Of course, while such a scenario sounds very alarmistic, it does highlight a fundamental problem. AI is a genie inside a bottle, so the only solution is to find a way that when it gets out, it is on our side through shared values. This does not involve spelling out a long list of what we care about in computer code, rather an AI could use its ‘intelligence’ to learn what we value. Because, after all, the real worry isn’t enmity, but competence. A superintelligent AI can attain its goals, however for the common good of the world, we need to ensure that its goals are aligned with ours. For instance, humans don’t generally hate bees, but we’re more intelligent than they are – so if humans want to build a home in the place of a beehive, too bad for the bees. The beneficial AI movement is simply a way of avoiding placing humanity in the position of those bees.

Work that brings everyday surprise is designed for humans and not machines. And an area in which we are most certainly able to compete with and beat any machine conceivable is creativity. Machines have made very little progress in tackling novel situations. The fundamental limitation of Machine Learning is that it requires huge volumes of past data which we humans don’t require. We have the capability to connect seemingly disparate threads to find a solution to crisis situations or problems we have never seen before. The ability of the human mind to take strands from reality and weave them into something beautiful using a vivid imagination cannot be surpassed by bits of code, no matter how intelligent it is. Indeed, an AI programme has made music, but the capacities of such programmes have a critical limitation: they cannot do something new, which is the foundation of human creativity, they can only replicate and mutate the data that is given them.

Thus, it would seem that, with the right kind of limitations on what Machine Learning is used for and an investment in human beings, we can really herald a society where man and AI work together. First, we need to change our educational institutions to help foster more and more creativity, thereby preparing the jobs market for a situation where humans no longer do many mundane jobs. The efficiencies created by this division of labour between humans and AI will reap rewards that can only be imagined. Second, we need to align AI with our value systems and morals, using it as a purposeful instrument for human betterment rather than as a sterile but disastrously potent machine. With these two broad approaches, we humans can reach even greater heights of civilisation in the coming Age. After all, to quote Max Tegmark, President of the Future of Life Institute:

“Everything we love about civilization is a product of intelligence, so amplifying our human intelligence with artificial intelligence has the potential of helping a civilization flourish like never before – as long as we manage to keep the technology beneficial.”


Sailesh Buchasia

An inquisitive person, Sailesh has a profound interest in the domains of Economics and Finance. Wanting to quench his thirst for knowledge by exploring and leaning, he will surely win your hearts with his witty humour


Unnati Jain

BCom (Hons.) student at St. Xaviers College, Kolkata. I look forward to make a career in finance someday, and be capable enough to travel the entire world.

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