In January 2015, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and dozens of other AI experts signed an open letter calling for caution in AI research to ensure that our AI systems “do what we want them to do” and continue to benefit the society. Hawking believes advanced AI could potentially “spell the end of the human race.” Musk calls it “our biggest existential threat.” Are we there yet, though? How close is advanced AI from becoming a reality? Should we really fear for our lives… Or maybe for our jobs?
How to Test Intelligence?
It’s been over sixty years since Alan Turing, a British pioneer of computer science, proposed his famous thought experiment. He wished to find out if a computer could imitate humans. The so-called Turing test consists of a human judge and two competitors engaged in a text conversation. One is a human, the other a machine designed to produce human-like responses. The judge knows one of them is a robot and has to determine which is which. If they’re unable to do it with certainty, the machine passes the test. Easy? Not quite. Turing predicted that by the year 2000 devices with a memory of 100 MB would be able to trick 30 % of the humans. The test had many versions and trial runs. Although several programs were claimed to have passed it, none have gained widespread recognition. If we’re still decades away from constructing a machine that would imitate intelligence, there’s no cause for concern, is there?
AI in Our Daily Lives
Not necessarily. Although advanced AI may not be in our reach yet, its primitive forms have been with us for years now. Many of them are so common in our everyday applications that we don’t consider them AI anymore. Even Stephen Hawking uses one in his speech-generating software! From text and speech recognition, to data search and analysis, production and customer service – intelligent robots have made their mark on a wide range of fields. With the increasing popularity of personal assistants such as Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, they have gradually become more visible in our daily lives. Until now, robots have mainly proven in tasks of a repetitive nature, hence their success in production lanes across the world, in various industries. We’re reaching a time, however, when their increasing power allows them to take on new challenges. This should get many of us thinking – is my job going to be replaced by a robot? The answer is… well, that depends.
Earlier this year, during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, professor Moshe Vardi of Rice University predicted that further advancement in robotics and AI would lead to unemployment rates exceeding 50%, striking the hardest at middle-class professionals.
“Robots are doing more and more jobs that people used to do. Pharmacists, prison guards, boning chicken, bartending, more and more jobs we’re able to mechanize them”, said Vardi.
“I believe that society needs to confront this question before it is upon us: If machines are capable of doing almost any work humans can do, what will humans do?”
How can you know if your profession is susceptible to automation, then? Basically, if it involves on-the-feet thinking, high level of social intelligence, negotiating skills, and creativity, you’re pretty much safe – for now. If, however, your duties include manual labor, assembling objects, entry-level clerical, and customer service duties or driving a car for Uber, you might think about changing your career path.
What Does the Future Hold in Store for Us?
Assuming these predictions come true, what will happen to all of the people facing unemployment? Are we in for a social revolt brought by the afflicted, or maybe a paradise of pleasant pastime activities and robots tending to our whims? Professor Vardi is sceptical about the second scenario.
“A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities,” he says.
“I do not find this a promising future, as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. That seems to me a dystopia. I believe that work is essential to human well-being.”
In contrast, Martin Ford, an entrepreneur and author of Rise of the Robots, does not predict a “leisure-only life”, but rather a transformation of economy with a form of basic income compensating for the automation of labor. This would equip people with a financial security net and encourage them to pursue new educational and business opportunities.
“People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy.
I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.”
Advanced AI systems may be a long way from now. Nevertheless, with companies like Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft investing in this area, it might come sooner than expected. Still, before we face a threat of a machine rebellion, we’re more likely to see the economy transform, with AI systems taking over tasks previously thought as human only. When this happens, what are we – the humans – going to do? Step back and watch, oppose and fight? Or perhaps the thing that we’ve been doing from the dawn of time – adapt?