Ro­bots and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence are not the end of work

Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is emerg­ing as the linch­pin of global wealth

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Peter Morici Peter Morici is an econ­o­mist and busi­ness pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, and a na­tional colum­nist.

Ro­bots fill­ing or­ders for Ama­zon and apps plan­ning busi­ness trips hardly spell the end of work, but if we are not care­ful, those could fore­shadow Chi­nese dom­i­nance of the global econ­omy.

Alarmists re­mem­ber el­e­va­tor op­er­a­tors and bowl­ing al­ley pin-setters and warn that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is now re­plac­ing knowl­edge work­ers — for ex­am­ple, in­surance ad­justers and fi­nan­cial ad­vis­ers. They fear so­ci­ety will di­vide be­tween those own­ing the in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and the in­do­lent masses de­pen­dent on gov­ern­ment hand­outs.

More com­pelling is the ex­am­ple of the farmer.

Since an­cient civ­i­liza­tions do­mes­ti­cated grains, hu­mans have planted and har­vested. Through the horse har­ness, plow and steel-edged sickle, then mod­ern trac­tors, tillers and har­vesters, and most re­cently hy­brid and ge­net­i­cally-mod­i­fied seeds, farm­ers have be­come re­lent­lessly more pro­duc­tive.

We still have farm­ers — just fewer who feed more peo­ple.

Ma­chines and the knowl­edge em­bed­ded in them re­ally do three things: re­place hands and mus­cle in repet­i­tive and back­break­ing tasks; en­hance our senses of hear­ing, sight and feel; and most re­cently through com­put­ers, process bil­lions of bits of in­for­ma­tion to iden­tify pat­terns, com­pare those to data­bases and run sce­nar­ios — if I do this, what op­tions are elim­i­nated and new ones cre­ated — to pre­dict be­hav­ior or repli­cate the work of the hu­man mind.

The lat­ter is ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. It per­mits mar­keters to build al­go­rithms that quickly place ads for prod­ucts we find at­trac­tive on our com­puter screens. Aided by cell-phone apps and high-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras, it per­mits der­ma­tol­o­gists and on­col­o­gists to more quickly di­ag­nose skin can­cers and with pa­tients’ med­i­cal his­to­ries, pre­scribe the most ef­fec­tive treat­ments.

Com­puter pro­grams are only as good as the in­for­ma­tion and al­go­rithms we put into them. And only as ef­fec­tive as past ex­pe­ri­ences and case his­to­ries can pre­dict fu­ture out­comes — ask any econ­o­mist how risky that is.

Peo­ple’s pref­er­ences change for all kinds of rea­sons — if Sally mar­ries Sam or has a child, va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tions of­ten change. En­vi­ron­ments, or­gan­isms and dis­eases con­stantly evolve.

AI won’t re­place doc­tors, but it will per­mit them to treat more pa­tients more ef­fec­tively and at lower costs. And some­how, I don’t think peo­ple are quite ready to leave life and death de­ci­sions to an iPhone app.

Sim­i­larly, I hardly believe most folks will be will­ing to put a 6 year-old into a driver­less car or school bus on a snowy, dark Jan­uary morn­ing. More likely, one driver will con­trol sev­eral ve­hi­cles from a dis­patch cen­ter and send as­sis­tance quickly if a prob­lem emerges.

His­tor­i­cally, as ma­chines and the soft­ware em­bed­ded in them have made peo­ple in spe­cific oc­cu­pa­tions more pro­duc­tive, economies grow more quickly. Peo­ple in legacy oc­cu­pa­tions make more stuff and dis­placed work­ers — or their chil­dren — move to oc­cu­pa­tions ser­vic­ing and de­sign­ing the new ma­chines and other in­dus­tries al­to­gether.

The mech­a­niza­tion of agri­cul­ture freed work­ers to move to fac­to­ries in cities and in turn, im­prove­ments in mass pro­duc­tion en­abled the growth of the ser­vice sec­tor — ev­ery­thing from dry clean­ers to movie the­aters.

The real prob­lem is that each round of in­no­va­tion elim­i­nates work in semi-skilled oc­cu­pa­tions and cre­ates more op­por­tu­ni­ties for work­ers with highly com­plex blue col­lar skills — ro­bot main­te­nance — or the de­sign skills we as­so­ciate with col­lege de­grees in fields like en­gi­neer­ing, ar­chi­tec­ture and medicine.

Amer­ica’s prob­lem is that we are em­brac­ing these changes too slowly — wit­ness the de­clin­ing pace of pro­duc­tiv­ity growth and the short­age of skilled work­ers to bring man­u­fac­tur­ing back to Amer­ica.

Busi­ness taxes and reg­u­la­tions are too bur­den­some, and as most of our high-tech star­tups ma­ture, they take pro­duc­tion jobs off­shore. And we are not ef­fec­tively ed­u­cat­ing young peo­ple for the next gen­er­a­tion of work.

Most high school stu­dents are ill­pre­pared ei­ther to en­ter de­mand­ing vo­ca­tional or ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams or en­roll in col­lege cur­ricu­lum for en­gi­neer­ing and the like.

The re­sponse of tech­nol­ogy lead­ers like Tesla’s Elon Musk is to call for the gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of AI — es­sen­tially put a break on progress — or Face­book’s Mark Zucker­berg is to just sur­ren­der — for­sake the no­tion of every adult hav­ing a job and guar­an­tee every Amer­i­can a gov­ern­ment funded an­nual in­come.

We had bet­ter be care­ful.

China’s lead­er­ship cor­rectly sees AI as emerg­ing the linch­pin of global wealth. It is in­vest­ing to dom­i­nate field by 2030 and hardly tells its young peo­ple the world owes them a liv­ing.

The real prob­lem is that each round of in­no­va­tion elim­i­nates work in semi­skilled oc­cu­pa­tions and cre­ates more op­por­tu­ni­ties for work­ers with highly com­plex blue col­lar skills — ro­bot main­te­nance— or the de­sign skills we as­so­ciate with col­lege de­grees in fields like en­gi­neer­ing, ar­chi­tec­ture and medicine.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH

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