Tue, Nov 10, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Growth of AI could lead to ‘a handful of gods and the rest of us’

A report suggests that the marriage of artificial intelligence and robotics could replace so many jobs that the era of mass employment could come to an end

By Charles Arthur  /  The Observer

If you wanted relief from stories about tire factories and steel plants closing, you could try relaxing with a new 300-page report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BOA), which looks at the likely effects of a robot revolution.

However, you might not end up reassured. Though it promises robot carers for an aging population, it also forecasts huge numbers of jobs being wiped out: up to 35 percent of all workers in the UK and 47 percent of those in the US, including white-collar jobs, seeing their livelihoods taken away by machines.

Have not we heard all this before, though? From the luddites of the 19th century to print unions protesting in the 1980s about computers, there have always been people fearful about the march of mechanization. And yet we keep on creating new job categories.

However, there are still concerns that the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) — which is able to make logical inferences about its surroundings and experience — married to ever-improving robotics, would wipe away entire swaths of work and radically reshape society.

“The poster child for automation is agriculture,” says Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the novel Pandora’s Brain. “In 1900, 40 percent of the US labor force worked in agriculture. By 1960, the figure was a few percent. And yet people had jobs; the nature of the jobs had changed.

“But then again, there were 21 million horses in the US in 1900. By 1960, there were just 3 million. The difference was that humans have cognitive skills — we could learn to do new things. But that might not always be the case as machines get smarter and smarter.”

HORSES AND HUMANS

What if we are the horses to AI’s humans? To those who do not watch the industry closely, it is hard to see how quickly the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence is advancing.

Last week, a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released a video showing a tiny drone flying through a lightly forested area at 48km per hour, avoiding the trees — all without a pilot, using only its onboard processors. Of course it can outrun a human-piloted one.

MIT has also built a “robot cheetah” which can jump over obstacles of up to 40cm without help. Add to that the standard progress of computing, where processing power doubles roughly every 18 months, and you can see why people like Chace are getting worried.

However, the incursion of AI into our daily life would not begin with robot cheetahs. In fact, it began long ago; the edge is thin, but the wedge is long. Cooking systems with vision processors can decide whether burgers are properly cooked. Restaurants can give customers access to tablets with the menu and let people choose without needing service staff.

Lawyers who used to slog through giant files for the “discovery” phase of a trial can turn it over to a computer. An “intelligent assistant” called Amy would, via e-mail, set up meetings autonomously. Google announced last week that you can get Gmail to write appropriate responses to incoming e-mails. (You still have to act on your responses, of course.)

Further afield, Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that assembles devices for Apple and others, aims to replace much of its workforce with automated systems.

The Associated Press gets news stories written automatically about sports and business by a system developed by Automated Insights. The longer you look, the more you find computers displacing simple work.

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