'"Well, is it art?" "I do not know," said Mordel. "It may be. Perhaps randomicity is the principle behind artistic technique. I cannot judge this work because I do not understand it. I must therefore go deeper, and inquire into what lies behind it, rather than merely considering the technique whereby it was produced. I know that human artists never set out to create art, as such," he said, "but rather to portray with their techniquest some features of objects and their functions which they deemed significant." "'Significant'? In what sense of the word?" "In the only sense of the word possible under the circumstances: significant in relation to the human condition, and worth of accentuation because of the manner in which they touched upon it." "In what manner?" "Obviously, it must be in a manner knowable only to one who has experience of the human condition." "There is a flaw somewhere in your logic, Mordel, and I shall find it." "I will wait." "If your major premise is correct," said Frost after awhile, "then I do not comprehend art."' -- Roger Zelazny, "For a Breath I Tarry"
Why the Digital Revolution Won't be a Rerun of the Industrial Revolution: Whenever you talk about smart machines taking all our jobs, the usual pushback is that you're being a Luddite—an argument that's especially appropriate this year since it's the 200th anniversary of the end of the Luddite movement… all those skilled weavers in 1813 thought that power looms would put them out of jobs, but they were right only in the most limited way…. But the Digital Revolution won't be a rerun of the Industrial Revolution…. Karl Smith… [has a] take:
Creating things is a matter of rearranging atoms. Broadly speaking, you need two things to do this — a power system to overcome the gravitational and electromagnetic forces that tend to hold atoms in their relative positions and a control system to guarantee that atoms wind up in the right place. The industrial revolution was about one thing — more power! But, more power means the need for more control. Hence, the Industrial Revolution meant a rapid increase in the demand for human brains, not decrease. Smart machines provide both the power system and the control system in one convenient package. You can still argue that displaced humans will end up doing something else—we just don't know what yet—but it's a tough argument to win. If you agree that artificial intelligence will be real someday soon, then by definition smart machines will be able to do just about anything that humans can do. The answer to "Humans will do X," for any value of X, is "But robots can do that too." That wasn't true of the Industrial Revolution.
If you don't believe that AI is around the corner, then there's no argument to have here (aside from why you think AI is so far off). But if you do, then we have some serious questions to ponder about the future of work, the future of money, and the future of democracy. That's what my piece is mainly about.
Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?: By 2040, computers the size of a softball are as smart as human beings. Smarter, in fact…. It's true that we've made far slower progress toward real artificial intelligence than we once thought, but that's for a very simple and very human reason: Early computer scientists grossly underestimated the power of the human brain and the difficulty of emulating one. It turns out that this is a very, very hard problem, sort of like filling up Lake Michigan one drop at a time….
Suppose it's 1940 and Lake Michigan has (somehow) been emptied. Your job is to fill it up using the following rule: To start off, you can add one fluid ounce of water to the lake bed. Eighteen months later, you can add two. In another 18 months, you can add four ounces. And so on. Obviously this is going to take a while. By 1950, you have added around a gallon of water…. By 1970, you have 16,000 gallons, about as much as an average suburban swimming pool… it's nothing compared to the size of Lake Michigan. To the naked eye you've made no progress at all. So let's skip all the way ahead to 2000. Still nothing…. How about 2010? You have a few inches…. But wait. Just as you're about to give up, things suddenly change. By 2020, you have about 40 feet of water. And by 2025 you're done. After 70 years you had nothing. Fifteen years later, the job was finished.
IF YOU HAVE ANY KIND OF BACKGROUND in computers, you've already figured out that I didn't pick these numbers out of a hat. I started in 1940 because that's about when the first programmable computer was invented. I chose a doubling time of 18 months because of a cornerstone of computer history called Moore's Law…. It's going to take us until 2025 to build a computer with the processing power of the human brain. And it's going to happen the same way: For the first 70 years, it will seem as if nothing is happening, even though we're doubling our progress every 18 months. Then, in the final 15 years, seemingly out of nowhere, we'll finish the job. True artificial intelligence really is around the corner, and it really will make life easier. But first we face vast economic upheaval….
Even with the IT industry barreling forward relentlessly, it has never seemed like we were making any real progress on the AI front. But there's another reason as well: Every time computers break some new barrier, we decide—or maybe just finally get it through our thick skulls—that we set the bar too low. At one point, for example, we thought that playing chess at a high level would be a mark of human-level intelligence. Then, in 1997, IBM's Deep Blue supercomputer beat world champion Garry Kasparov, and suddenly we decided that playing grandmaster-level chess didn't imply high intelligence after all. So maybe translating human languages would be a fair test? Google Translate does a passable job…. Recognizing human voices and responding appropriately?… Driving a car? Google has already logged more than 300,000 miles in its driverless cars….
The Luddites weren't wrong. They were just 200 years too early…. True artificial intelligence will very likely be here within a couple of decades. By about 2040 our robot paradise awaits….
At this point our tale takes a darker turn. What do we do over the next few decades as robots become steadily more capable and steadily begin taking away all our jobs?… During the Industrial Revolution, machines were limited to performing physical tasks. The Digital Revolution is different because computers can perform cognitive tasks too, and that means machines will eventually be able to run themselves. When that happens, they won't just put individuals out of work temporarily. Entire classes of workers will be out of work permanently. In other words, the Luddites weren't wrong. They were just 200 years too early….
Increasingly, then, robots will take over more and more jobs. And guess who will own all these robots? People with money, of course. As this happens, capital will become ever more powerful and labor will become ever more worthless….
Until a decade ago, the share of total national income going to workers was pretty stable at around 70 percent, while the share going to capital—mainly corporate profits and returns on financial investments—made up the other 30 percent. More recently, though, those shares have started to change….
How exactly will this play out? Economist David Autor has suggested that the first jobs to go will be middle-skill jobs. Despite impressive advances, robots still don't have the dexterity to perform many common kinds of manual labor that are simple for humans—digging ditches, changing bedpans. Nor are they any good at jobs that require a lot of cognitive skill—teaching classes, writing magazine articles. But in the middle you have jobs that are both fairly routine and require no manual dexterity. So that may be where the hollowing out starts: with desk jobs in places like accounting or customer support….
WHAT CAN WE DO about this? First and foremost, we should be carefully watching those five economic trends linked to capital-biased technological change to see if they rebound when the economy picks up. If, instead, they continue their long, downward slide, it means we've already entered a new era. Next, we'll need to let go of some familiar convictions…. Solutions to this will remain elusive as long as we resist facing the real change in the way our economy works. When we finally do, we'll probably have only a few options open to us. The simplest, because it's relatively familiar, is to tax capital at high rates and use the money to support displaced workers. In other words, as The Economist's Ryan Avent puts it, "redistribution, and a lot of it."… But whatever the answer—and it might turn out to be something we can't even imagine right now—it's time to start thinking about our automated future in earnest…. When the robot revolution finally starts to happen, it's going to happen fast, and it's going to turn our world upside down…
Inequality In The Robot Future: Most economists miss the importance of such a change because they lump fears of mass robot unemployment in with similiar fears at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The robot future is an entirely different matter, however. To put it in perspective, you have to take a decidedly inhuman perspective. You have to see your fellow man not as an individual, a comrade or even a fellow soul. You have to see him for what he is – a control system. Creating things is a matter of rearranging atoms. Broadly speaking, you need two things to do this – a power system to overcome the gravitational and electromagnetic forces that tend to hold atoms in their relative positions and a control system to guarantee that atoms wind up in the right place.
The industrial revolution was about one thing – more power! But, more power means the need for more control. Hence, the Industrial Revolution meant a rapid increase in the demand for human brains, not decrease. It was not so with all living things. The population of horse in the Western World peak at around the turn of the 20th Century. Before the Industrial Revolution horses were one the principle power systems of the economy. As the economy grew, so did the demand and hence the population of horses…. And so horses began to die off.
In a pure market equilibrium this is exactly what would happen to most humans. They would die off. But, with any luck that’s not what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is massive income transfers to flesh and blood human beings….
Robots will likely be sentient because the easiest way to get a human intelligent robot is to take human brain, slice it apart and copy all of the connections into an electronic format. This may not be the most humane, noble or intellectually satisfying way of creating Artificial Intelligence. But, it is the easiest and someone somewhere will do it. Once, it done. It is done. Copying the digital copy will be trivial. It means, however, that you get the whole human, daydreams, insecurities, social ticks and all…. They also have no chance at a golden age of relative income equality that we are currently experiencing. Subsistence level poverty is the only option. If by some miracle the income to robots were to rise above subsistence, that would imply an entrepreneur could churn out robot slaves at a profit. And, someone somewhere would do so. Our future is one of massive perpetual inequality. Our task is to be prepared to handle such a future with grace and kindness, and to above all, ease suffering.