Discussion of the “Singularity” — the moment when computer intelligence surpasses that of humans to such an extent that humans become practically redundant — has been gaining steam across the media spectrum. Ray Kurzweil pointed to 2045 as the date of this tipping point, after which anyone unprepared for merging with machines would likely face a very unproductive personal future.
With the rise of automation, a background debate echoes the idea of full spectrum human-machine integration. For those who might overlook the full theoretical endgame of the Singularity, including transhumanism and immortality, the economic singularity is showing itself already.
The outsourcing of human jobs as a side effect of globalization has arguably contributed to the current unemployment crisis in the United States. However, a growing trend sees humans done away with altogether, even in those countries where U.S. jobs have landed, as a fully robotic workforce takes over – curiously by the same singularity date of 2045 – according to professor Moshe Vardi, a Rice University computer science professor.
So what does this mean for the future of human relevance?
Robot proponents have often cited the brutal working conditions of factory labor, inefficiency and corporate bottom lines as principal reasons for replacing humans. Human beings are slowly but surely becoming redundant in areas as diverse as manufacturing, product fulfillment, and even warfare. However, it is the rise of artificial intelligence which suggests that the former argument stating that humans could maintain positions requiring high skill and decision making may have been wishful thinking. Many computer science experts are beginning to conclude that complete human obsolescence in the workforce is a more likely outcome.
According to Moshe Vardi, if current trends of computer development and human replacement continue, the traditional labor market will be a thing of the past as a “consequence of machine intelligence.”
It is in the context of the Great Recession that people started noticing that while machines have yet to exceed humans in intelligence, they are getting intelligent enough to have a major impact on the job market. In their 2011 book, Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, argued that “technological progress is accelerating innovation even as it leaves many types of workers behind.” Indeed, over the past 30 years, as we saw the personal computer morph into tablets, smartphones, and cloud computing, we also saw income inequality grow worldwide. While the loss of millions of jobs over the past few years has been attributed to the Great Recession, whose end is not yet in sight, it now seems that technology-driven productivity growth is at least a major factor. Such concerns have gone mainstream in the past year, with articles in newspapers and magazines carrying titles such as “More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People,” “Marathon Machine: Unskilled Workers Are Struggling to Keep Up With Technological Change,” “It’s a Man vs. Machine Recovery,” and “The Robots Are Winning.” (Source)
Until this point, as Vardi notes, humans have been competing with their own creations mainly at a level of “brawn” not brain. Yet, that is where the most significant changes are taking place in computational ability, giving rise to full-fledged artificial intelligence which threatens to overtake even the areas of “skilled labor,” as well as areas of traditional human-to-human services. We can see signs of this in the following areas, just to name a few:
- Self-driving vehicles (Source)
- Housesitting: (Source)
- Butlers: (Video)
- Restaurant service (Source)
- Nursing care: (Video)
- Companionship and Assistance: for pets and people
- Personal Entertainment and Companionship: See ASIMO, and Romeo.
- Teaching (Source)
- Even Journalism and Writing (Source)
It is also often cited by robot and A.I. proponents that humans are destined for a life of leisure as our creations take over in order to assist us with the grunt work so that we can live tranquil lives of creative pursuits and peaceful philosophical endeavors. However, this was a common argument also made when the personal computer came on the scene. Most of us would agree that the personal computer definitely offered us increased efficiency and productivity … but only so that we could work more, not less.
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At this point it doesn’t seem like the outsourcing of human abilities to our robotic counterparts is leading us toward the life of leisure that has been promised, but instead is leading to the perception of humans as nothing more than a troubling quantity within a new economic algorithm. How can we ensure that we maintain relevance during a time of such rapid change?
Professor Vardi offers the following as his concerns about “leisure” and human relevance:
First, if machines can do almost all of our work, then it is not clear that even 15 weekly hours of work will be required. Second, I do not find the prospect of leisure-filled life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being. Third, our economic system would have to undergo a radical restructuring to enable billions of people to live lives of leisure. Unemployment rate in the US is currently under 9 percent and is considered to be a huge problem.
Technology always has been a double-edged sword. The possibilities presented by artificial intelligence and robotics hold massive positive potential that actually could challenge elite power structures. In the meantime, our economy is transforming away from human inefficiency and variability to a robot economy that is already showing itself as a threat to the viability of an increasing number of people. Without a massive paradigm shift in the ability for the average person to tap into the growing potential for a massive reduction in cost of goods and services, while still maintaining control over their own creations, the endgame is likely to be more grim than utopian.
We are living in an extraordinary time where we are at the cusp of a massive change that has not been seen since the industrial revolution in its potential to impact nearly every person on the planet. Please leave your comments about what you conclude will be the outcome.
Interview with Moshe Vardi:
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