Can we think our way past robots?
Never mind the wall that President Trump said Mexico must pay for but then Congress must pay for; either that or much of the working class loses its health coverage. Oh, he’s dropped that? Well, it made for a lively 24 hours.
Bubbling beneath today’s comic-book politics are threats to American workers that have nothing to do with people or things coming over the border. Robots and artificial intelligence are nipping at the heels of not only blue-collar workers but also white-collar professionals who assumed that a degree would keep them several steps ahead of the machines.
Trump’s treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, recently opined that this peril for employment is, “like, so far away” that it’s not even on his “radar screen.” Guess he hasn’t read about MillerCoors’ plan to offer a beer service called Miller Lite On-Demand.
It works like this: A beer drinker watching the game at home comes to the startling realization that he’s out of Miller Lite. Without having to take his rear end off the couch, he uses a voice-activated command (or pushes a programmed button on the phone) to order more beer. A truck arrives with reinforcements within an hour.
There’s no going to a store that has to employ sales people. Technology for self-driving trucks is well on its way, so truck drivers will soon not be needed.
Here’s the glitch. With jobs like these gone, how will the beer drinker make the money needed to buy the beverage? Such questions are gathering dust in an administration intent on distracting ordinary folk with entertainment as it marshals its deep thinking for such matters as how to slash taxes for real estate empires.
Actually, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently published a study on the advances in automation and artificial intelligence and posed some not insignificant questions related to them. For instance:
Who gets to choose the technological future? How does this change us as a society? And what will it mean to be human?
Artificial intelligence goes way beyond the elementary programming of robots to tighten screws. Simplistically put, it teaches machines to think, to learn the way toddlers do. With traditional robots, at least you needed humans to do the programming. Technology is now being developed that would let the machines program themselves.
Artificial intelligence can already do some things that lawyers or their human assistants had to do. For example, it uses “natural language processing” to go through documents and find passages that may be relevant to a case.
This technology has let BlackRock, the giant investment company, do away with some of its human stock pickers. Marry big data to algorithms and computer models and you have fund managers who never take vacations, loyal machines who won’t skip off to a competitor.
Well-planned, this technology could deliver a glorious future of leisure and creativity to the masses. Or it could relegate them to misery under the thumbs of a few masterminds pulling the levers. Sadly, our current leadership seems determined to avoid thought unrelated to today’s appetites.
As Groucho Marx put it: “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop.