That’s it, I’m calling it: Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) has been the topic of 2017. I know Trump will be disappointed, his numerous fuck-ups having not earned him the top spot, but the amount of articles, think-pieces and tweets concerned with AI and the so-called ‘rise of the robots’ has been staggering. And I’m here to add to that pile of ‘e-paper’, in case the title hadn’t told you that already.
A lot of the pieces I’ve come across about AI have focused largely on its downsides: The fact it could make millions jobless, outsmart humans and trigger a nuclear apocalypse like in that movie series with Arnold Schwarznegger that, let’s face it, should’ve been wrapped up after the third movie. Others have focused on what governments, businesses and people should do to prepare for the oncoming robotic revolution, such as this great piece by Erik Vermeulen over at Hacker Noon. I haven’t however seen much in the way of why automation will be a great thing for humanity. They do exist, but aren’t as widely shared on social media. Indeed, most of the conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues on the topic concern the downsides and why we shouldn’t go any further lest we want to meet our maker sooner than we’d like.
It’s understandable why articles focusing on the negative are popular. The economic fallout caused by this ‘rise of the robots’ is well documented, with those concerned with what’s to come not exactly predicting a future of rainbows, flying unicorns and lakes of chocolate — Thousands, potentially millions, will lose their jobs. And no, those job losses won’t just occur in blue-collar areas. Not even lawyers, a job that many a parent was proud to have pushed their child into studying for, are safe from the oncoming robotic revolution.
This negative outlook however is unwarranted. Yes, jobs will be lost due to AI, but many more will be created by it, many that probably don’t exist — or we think have no reason to exist — right now. I mean, many probably thought the computer would kill of thousands of jobs in the same fashion AI could, but it has most definitely created new ones, some that today seem rather pointless (*ahem* “social media influencers”) and arguably would’ve been thought laughable if you had proposed them as jobs when computers first started to become a more mainstream technological appliance.
There are other, less well-known ways that AI has the potential to revolutionise and improve our lives. Jillian Richardson in a piece for IQ notes how AI is being used by farmers to improve crop yields and maximise profits. Not only do the higher profits benefit those in a profession whose take-home pay can change if the wind blows one way instead of another, the improved crop yields will be necessary for our very survival. As Richardson points out, the global population is going to balloon massively over the coming decades. More people means more food consumption, which in turn means we need to produce more food. Combined with the rise in synthetic meat production and the popularity of vegan — or at the very least, ‘greener’ — diets, AI could potentially save humanity, not destroy it!
Education is also another field which could benefit from AI. Whilst I understand and share the concerns of both teachers and parents who worry about their child being glued to their phone or laptop in the middle of a lesson, AI programmes have the potential to improve the learning experience for many children. AI technology will allow teachers to gain a more individualised view of how each child learns, thus allowing teachers and educators to focus not only on areas where a child may be struggling — for me, it was anything mathematical — but also help them tailor and improve their curriculum so that the whole class learns more effectively. Also, can you imagine virtual reality being used in lessons?! Scientific subjects in particular could benefit from this. With governments around the world pushing STEM subjects to seemingly little avail, what better way could there be to get a child interested in such subjects?
Change is scary and at times painful. That much both advocates for and against further AI development can agree on. But, that doesn’t mean we should simply stop advancing into the future. As Josiah Bartlett, President of the United States said in the TV series The West Wing, “global economic forces are unstoppable, much like (the march of) technology itself”.
AI is here to stay, to grow, and to get better. It will and is improving the lives of millions of people around the globe. It won’t lead to the destruction of humanity because as Timothy B. Lee of Vox points out, the Terminator-style scenario many fear falls victim to the concept of “infinite regress”, whereby the wiping out of humanity would lead to the wiping out of robots also, as they are dependent on us to be repaired and so on.
This doesn’t however mean we should march blindly towards AI. The positives of it vastly outweigh the negatives, but a bit of future-proofing couldn’t hurt. Those such as Elon Musk advocate for a basic income of some kind to be introduced, a thought I can get behind and have written about previously.
AI can and will make our lives better. The question now is whether we as a society are willing to do all the hard future-proofing aspects of policy making to make those potential improvements AI can bring a reality.
(*Credit to Colm Fitzpatrick who prompted me to write this piece after a discussion we had on the subject of AI*)
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