AI or Die

Newsweek - - NEWS - BY KEVIN MANEY @kmaney

uber’s fight to op­er­ate in Lon­don starkly shows how ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI) can quickly evis­cer­ate the value of hard-earned hu­man knowl­edge. The city’s move to boot Uber is not much dif­fer­ent from Don­ald Trump re­jig­ger­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal rules to help Amer­i­can coal min­ers keep their jobs. We are now ask­ing a hard ques­tion of so­ci­ety: Do we want gov­ern­ment to pro­tect us from hav­ing our em­ploy­ment out­looks nar­rowed to work­ing as overe­d­u­cated Taskrab­bit serfs putting to­gether other peo­ple’s Ikea ta­bles?

Uber is in court ap­peal­ing an or- der that would kick it out of Lon­don, where city of­fi­cials ruled that Uber driv­ers are not safe enough and—even worse to the Bri­tish—too rude to be al­lowed on Lon­don’s streets. Uber’s new CEO, Dara Khos­row­shahi, has apol­o­gized to Lon­don­ers for “mess­ing up” and hopes to make amends.

But Lon­don’s rul­ing is only tan­gen­tially about Uber’s rep­u­ta­tion as an ass­hole com­pany. It’s re­ally to pro­tect a gen­er­a­tion of lo­cal taxi driv­ers who have in­vested enor­mous amounts of time and per­sonal wealth in fill­ing their heads with what is now nearly use­less in­for­ma­tion.

Any­one who wants to get a li­cense to drive one of Lon­don’s black cabs has to mas­ter what’s fa­mously called the Knowl­edge, which is one of the most ridicu­lous men­tal chal­lenges ever im­posed on peo­ple who will wind up mak­ing about $60,000 a year. A prospec­tive driver has to mem­o­rize ev­ery street, build­ing, park, statue and triv­ial land­mark in cen­tral Lon­don, and be able to per­fectly re­cite the fastest route be­tween any two spots in the city. The test is so dif­fi­cult that brain sci­en­tists have stud­ied the city’s cab driv­ers and dis­cov­ered that the mem­o­riza­tion gives their brains an en­larged pos­te­rior hip­pocam­pus, which ap­par­ently is not painful.

The re­quire­ment for the Knowl­edge has been in place for more than 150 years. It long made sense in an ag­o­niz­ingly com­plex ge­og­ra­phy, where a wrong turn could leave a driver lost in a maze of me­dieval streets. Mas­ter­ing the Knowl­edge means study­ing 40 hours a week for two, three or even four years. The only way, then, for Lon­don to have enough cab driv­ers—be­cause who would want to go through this?—has been to guar­an­tee they’d be paid de­cently. As a re­sult, Lon­don has the high­est taxi fares in the world.

En­ter Uber, which nav­i­gates with GPS. When a driver picks you up, your des­ti­na­tion is al­ready on the driver’s phone, which can dic­tate turn-by-turn di­rec­tions. Without GPS, no car ser­vice could com­pete with the ef­fi­cient routes of a Knowl­edge-able black cab driver. But with GPS, even im­mi­grants new to Lon­don can nav­i­gate the city well enough. In the past cou­ple of years, the Ai-based app Waze has taken this ca­pa­bil­ity to an­other level. Waze learns from the move­ment of all Waze users in a city, con­stantly find­ing bet­ter routes, un­der­stand­ing

traf­fic pat­terns and know­ing about jams and ac­ci­dents in real time. Now a new driver can out­shine a vet­eran driver by sim­ply down­load­ing an app. Get­ting started re­quires no huge sunk costs, no grueling hours of study. So th­ese up­start driv­ers don’t need the guar­an­tee of high wages for life. That means they can un­der­price black cabs.

Lon­don’s black cab driv­ers are watch­ing tech­nol­ogy sweep away their liveli­hoods. The loss they feel is grow­ing fa­mil­iar across other pro­fes­sions. “I’m up­set be­cause what I had to go through now comes on your phone,” Mick Smith, a Lon­don cab driver for 28 years, told CNET. “It’s not about com­pe­ti­tion—it’s about go­ing through the same process.” It’s an un­der­stand­able re­ac­tion but also un­re­al­is­tic. AI has made that process un­nec­es­sary. Even cru­eler, the knowl­edge Smith built up of Lon­don’s streets isn’t use­ful for much of any­thing else.

This is hap­pen­ing all over. Gold­man Sachs and many of the big­gest hedge funds are all switch­ing on Ai-driven sys­tems that can fore­see mar­ket trends and make trades bet­ter than hu­mans. One Gold­man Sachs trad­ing of­fice has been whit­tled from 600 peo­ple to two. AI can read X-rays bet­ter than ra­di­ol­o­gists. A great deal of the work done by lawyers is head­ing for the AI trash bin. Like the Knowl­edge, th­ese are pro­fes­sions that re­quire load­ing up your head with a lot of data and rules, and then mostly just ex­e­cut­ing. AI can do that now.

Of course, there’s an­other side to this. AI is mak­ing all th­ese ser­vices cheaper and eas­ier to ac­cess. Uber brought cheaper rides to Lon­don. And hey, if we could all get a lawyer in an app, who but the lawyers would be cry­ing? Those who in­vested in ob­tain­ing their knowl­edge get hurt, but many more peo­ple ben­e­fit. Is that bad? When are jobs for a few more im­por­tant than eco­nomic or other up­sides for many? Fig­ur­ing that out is go­ing to tie law­mak­ers in knots for a gen­er­a­tion.

Then again, Uber in Lon­don shows how AI can open op­por­tu­ni­ties for those who part­ner with the tech­nol­ogy rather than fight it. You want to be an Uber driver armed with Waze, not a tra­di­tional driver in­sist­ing your brain alone is bet­ter. You want to be a ra­di­ol­o­gist who can har­ness AI to make faster, more ac­cu­rate di­ag­noses, or the lawyer who fo­cuses on cre­ative le­gal ar­gu­ments while de­ploy­ing AI to do all the grunt case re­search. As fu­tur­ist Kevin Kelly puts it in his book The In­evitable, “Our most im­por­tant think­ing ma­chines will not be ma­chines that can think what we think faster, bet­ter, but those that think what we can’t think. You’ll be paid in the fu­ture based on how well you work with ro­bots.”

AI will keep get­ting bet­ter and more per­va­sive. Heck, Elon Musk started a com­pany called Neu­ralink to make AI chips that we can just em­bed in our skulls. An Uber driver wouldn’t have to use a phone and an app—just plug Waze into his or her brain. Suc­cess will go to those who see such ad­vances as an op­por­tu­nity. If it feels like a threat, you might want to start lob­by­ing the gov­ern­ment for pro­tec­tion. Or sign up for Taskrab­bit.

HAIL THE CON­QUER­ING TAXI? Khos­row­shahi, be­low, has apol­o­gized for rude Uber driv­ers, but the real is­sue is whether Lon­don will pro­tect its cab driv­ers from tech­nol­ogy that makes their highly spe­cial­ized knowl­edge of that city’s streets use­less.

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