On December 2nd, 1942, a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi came back from lunch and watched as humanity created the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction inside a pile of bricks and wood underneath a football field at the University of Chicago. Known to history as Chicago Pile-1, it was celebrated in silence with a single bottle of Chianti, for those who were there understood exactly what it meant for humankind, without any need for words.
Now, something new has occurred that, again, quietly changed the world forever. Like a whispered word in a foreign language, it was quiet in that you may have heard it, but its full meaning may not have been comprehended. However, it’s vital we understand this new language, and what it’s increasingly telling us, for the ramifications are set to alter everything we take for granted about the way our globalized economy functions, and the ways in which we as humans exist within it.
What actually ended up happening when they faced off? Lee went on to lose all but one of their match’s five games. An AI named AlphaGo is now a better Go player than any human and has been granted the “divine” rank of 9 dan. In other words, its level of play borders on godlike. Go has officially fallen to machine, just as Jeopardy did before it to Watson, and chess before that to Deep Blue.
“AlphaGo’s historic victory is a clear signal that we’ve gone from linear to parabolic.”
So, what is Go? Very simply, think of Go as Super Ultra Mega Chess. This may still sound like a small accomplishment, another feather in the cap of machines as they continue to prove themselves superior in the fun games we play, but it is no small accomplishment, and what’s happening is no game.
AlphaGo’s historic victory is a clear signal that we’ve gone from linear to parabolic. Advances in technology are now so visibly exponential in nature that we can expect to see a lot more milestones being crossed long before we would otherwise expect. These exponential advances, most notably in forms of artificial intelligence limited to specific tasks, we are entirely unprepared for as long as we continue to insist upon employment as our primary source of income.
This may all sound like exaggeration, so let’s take a few decade steps back, and look at what computer technology has been actively doing to human employment so far:
Let the above chart sink in. Do not be fooled into thinking this conversation about the automation of labor is set in the future. It’s already here. Computer technology is already eating jobs and has been since 1990.
All work can be divided into four types: routine and nonroutine, cognitive and manual. Routine work is the same stuff day in and day out, while nonroutine work varies. Within these two varieties, is the work that requires mostly our brains (cognitive) and the work that requires mostly our bodies (manual). Where once all four types saw growth, the stuff that is routine stagnated back in 1990. This happened because routine labor is easiest for technology to shoulder. Rules can be written for work that doesn’t change, and that work can be better handled by machines.
Distressingly, it’s exactly routine work that once formed the basis of the American middle class. It’s routine manual work that Henry Ford transformed by paying people middle class wages to perform, and it’s routine cognitive work that once filled US office spaces. Such jobs are now increasingly unavailable, leaving only two kinds of jobs with rosy outlooks: jobs that require so little thought, we pay people little to do them, and jobs that require so much thought, we pay people well to do them.
If we can now imagine our economy as a plane with four engines, where it can still fly on only two of them as long as they both keep roaring, we can avoid concerning ourselves with crashing. But what happens when our two remaining engines also fail? That’s what the advancing fields of robotics and AI represent to those final two engines, because for the first time, we are successfully teaching machines to learn.
I’m a writer at heart, but my educational background happens to be in psychology and physics. I’m fascinated by both of them so my undergraduate focus ended up being in the physics of the human brain, otherwise known as cognitive neuroscience. I think once you start to look into how the human brain works, how our mass of interconnected neurons somehow results in what we describe as the mind, everything changes. At least it did for me.
As a quick primer in the way our brains function, they’re a giant network of interconnected cells. Some of these connections are short, and some are long. Some cells are only connected to one other, and some are connected to many. Electrical signals then pass through these connections, at various rates, and subsequent neural firings happen in turn. It’s all kind of like falling dominoes, but far faster, larger, and more complex. The result amazingly is us, and what we’ve been learning about how we work, we’ve now begun applying to the way machines work.
One of these applications is the creation of deep neural networks - kind of like pared-down virtual brains. They provide an avenue to machine learning that’s made incredible leaps that were previously thought to be much further down the road, if even possible at all. How? It’s not just the obvious growing capability of our computers and our expanding knowledge in the neurosciences, but the vastly growing expanse of our collective data, aka big data.
Imagine programming a computer to recognize a chair. You’d need to enter a ton of instructions, and the result would still be a program detecting chairs that aren’t, and not detecting chairs that are. So how did we learn to detect chairs? Our parents pointed at a chair and said, “chair.” Then we thought we had that whole chair thing all figured out, so we pointed at a table and said “chair”, which is when our parents told us that was “table.” This is called reinforcement learning. The label “chair” gets connected to every chair we see, such that certain neural pathways are weighted and others aren’t. For “chair” to fire in our brains, what we perceive has to be close enough to our previous chair encounters. Essentially, our lives are big data filtered through our brains.
The power of deep learning is that it’s a way of using massive amounts of data to get machines to operate more like we do without giving them explicit instructions. Instead of describing “chairness” to a computer, we instead just plug it into the Internet and feed it millions of pictures of chairs. It can then have a general idea of “chairness.” Next we test it with even more images. Where it’s wrong, we correct it, which further improves its “chairness” detection. Repetition of this process results in a computer that knows what a chair is when it sees it, for the most part as well as we can. The important difference though is that unlike us, it can then sort through millions of images within a matter of seconds.
Go is famously a more complex game than chess, with its larger board, longer games, and many more pieces. Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence team likes to say that there are more possible Go boards than atoms in the known universe, but that vastly understates the computational problem. There are about 10¹⁷⁰ board positions in Go, and only 10⁸⁰ atoms in the universe. That means that if there were as many parallel universes as there are atoms in our universe (!), then the total number of atoms in all those universes combined would be close to the possibilities on a single Go board.
Such confounding complexity makes impossible any brute-force approach to scan every possible move to determine the next best move. But deep neural networks get around that barrier in the same way our own minds do, by learning to estimate what feels like the best move. We do this through observation and practice, and so did AlphaGo, by analyzing millions of professional games and playing itself millions of times. So the answer to when the game of Go would fall to machines wasn’t even close to ten years. The correct answer ended up being, “Any time now.”
Any time now. That’s the new go-to response in the 21st century for any question involving something new machines can do better than humans, and we need to try to wrap our heads around it.
We need to recognize what it means for exponential technological change to be entering the labor market space for nonroutine jobs for the first time ever. Machines that can learn mean nothing humans do as a job is uniquely safe anymore. From hamburgers to healthcare, machines can be created to successfully perform such tasks with no need or less need for humans, and at lower costs than humans.
Amelia is just one AI out there currently being beta-tested in companies right now. Created by IPsoft over the past 16 years, she’s learned how to perform the work of call center employees. She can learn in seconds what takes us months, and she can do it in 20 languages. Because she’s able to learn, she’s able to do more over time. In one company putting her through the paces, she successfully handled one of every ten calls in the first week, and by the end of the second month, she could resolve six of ten calls. Because of this, it’s been estimated that she can put 250 million people out of a job, worldwide.
Viv is an AI coming soon from the creators of Siri who’ll be our own personal assistant. She’ll perform tasks online for us, and even function as a Facebook News Feed on steroids by suggesting we consume the media she’ll know we’ll like best. In doing all of this for us, we’ll see far fewer ads, and that means the entire advertising industry — that industry the entire Internet is built upon — stands to be hugely disrupted.
And now even the White House, in a stunning report to Congress, has put the probability at 83 percent that a worker making less than $20 an hour in 2010 will eventually lose their job to a machine. Even workers making as much as $40 an hour face odds of 31 percent. To ignore odds like these is tantamount to our now laughable “duck and cover” strategies for avoiding nuclear blasts during the Cold War.
All of this is why it’s those most knowledgeable in the AI field who are now actively sounding the alarm for basic income. During a panel discussion at the end of 2015 at Singularity University, prominent data scientist Jeremy Howard asked “Do you want half of people to starve because they literally can’t add economic value, or not?” before going on to suggest, ”If the answer is not, then the smartest way to distribute the wealth is by implementing a universal basic income.”
AI pioneer Chris Eliasmith, director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, warned about the immediate impacts of AI on society in an interview with Futurism, “AI is already having a big impact on our economies… My suspicion is that more countries will have to follow Finland’s lead in exploring basic income guarantees for people.”
Moshe Vardi expressed the same sentiment after speaking at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science about the emergence of intelligent machines, “we need to rethink the very basic structure of our economic system… we may have to consider instituting a basic income guarantee.”
Even Baidu’s chief scientist and founder of Google’s “Google Brain” deep learning project, Andrew Ng, during an onstage interview at this year’s Deep Learning Summit, expressed the shared notion that basic income must be “seriously considered” by governments, citing “a high chance that AI will create massive labor displacement.”
When those building the tools begin warning about the implications of their use, shouldn’t those wishing to use those tools listen with the utmost attention, especially when it’s the very livelihoods of millions of people at stake? If not then, what about when Nobel prize winning economists begin agreeing with them in increasing numbers?
No nation is yet ready for the changes ahead. High labor force non-participation leads to social instability, and a lack of consumers within consumer economies leads to economic instability. So let’s ask ourselves, what’s the purpose of the technologies we’re creating? What’s the purpose of a car that can drive for us, or artificial intelligence that can shoulder 60% of our workload? Is it to allow us to work more hours for even less pay? Or is it to enable us to choose how we work, and to decline any pay/hours we deem insufficient because we’re already earning the incomes that machines aren’t?
What’s the big lesson to learn, in a century when machines can learn?
I offer it’s that jobs are for machines, and life is for people.
«Πότε έγινε κάτι μεγάλο στον κόσμο με σιγουριά? Πότε η φρονιμάδα ξεσήκωσε τους ανθρώπους να παρατήσουν τα σπίτια τους και το χουζούρι τους και να πιάσουν τα βουνά, για να ζητούν ελευθερία? Αυτό θα πει παλικαριά! Να ξεκινάς και να μην είσαι σίγουρος…» Ν.Καζαντζακης
Φως ζητάνε τα χαϊβάνια κ' οι ραγιάδες απ' τα ουράνια, μα θεοί κι οξαποδώ κει δεν είναι παρά δω.
Aν το δίκιο θες, καλέ μου, με το δίκιο του πολέμου θα το βρείς. Oπού ποθεί λεφτεριά, παίρνει σπαθί. Mη χτυπάς τον αδερφό σου - τον αφέντη τον κουφό σου! Kαι στον ίδρο το δικό γίνε συ τ' αφεντικό.
..η βλακεία, η εγωπάθεια, η μωρία και η γενική αναπηρία της ηγετικής τάξης στη σημερινή Ελλάδα σε φέρνει στην ανάγκη να ξεράσεις, είμαι βέβαιος πως τούτοι οι ελεεινοί δεν αντιπροσωπεύουν τη ζωντανή Ελλάδα, δεν αντιπροσωπεύουν τίποτε και υπάρχουν άγνωστοι, πολλοί που δεν ξέρουν, αλλά που αξίζουν...".
Ποιός είδε κράτος λιγοστό σ’ όλη τη γη μοναδικό, εκατό να εξοδεύει και πενήντα να μαζεύει;
Να τρέφει όλους τους αργούς, να’ χει επτά Πρωθυπουργούς, ταμείο δίχως χρήματα και δόξης τόσα μνήματα;
Να’ χει κλητήρες για φρουρά και να σε κλέβουν φανερά, κι ενώ αυτοί σε κλέβουνε τον κλέφτη να γυρεύουνε;