I’ve developed, over the last two years at TDMB, a kind of fixation on the more sci-fi aspects of technology. My ears prick up at mention of the Singularity, of cyborg identities, of mind upload – the simulation hypothesis. The reason might lie somewhere in my background as a fiction writer, though I have never had much interest in science fiction until TDMB wrapped me in its techie tentacles and turned me into a geek.
As time’s gone on and my reading has got broader, I have come to realise that the upper end of the tinfoil hat theories I’d been enjoying aren’t really happening (yet). It’s time to put to bed, in particular, my fantasies of the Singularity. AI is unlikely to become more intelligent than humans within my lifetime (however long that may be), and when that time approaches, I have faith that we will have strict regulations in place to prevent a Hal 9000 moment.
Let’s, instead, talk about a technological revolution that’s already happening. Rather than Singularity, we are living in the era of Multiplicity.
The Era Of Multiplicity
Multiplicity means the state in which humans and machines work together, side-by-side, in symbiosis.
I’ve been running my Sunday TechTech Review for somewhere over a year now. It’s an email newsletter in which I cover the most widely-shared articles of the week in tech. And stories about a job market devastated by automation have become so boringly prevalent I have begun either covering them with a heavy dose of irony or leaving them out altogether. With the news dominated by stories of how humans will be cast out of jobs to be replaced by machines, whether AI, robots, or a combination of the two, it is important to set the record straight.
Those actually working in Robotics and AI pay no heed to these sensationalist stories. Instead, they find themselves in a position of having to try to break in on the noise with the voice of reason. No, they say. The vast majority of us will not lose our jobs and livelihood. Instead, machines will come and work beside us, making our jobs easier and – crucially – more fulfilling.
A December 2017 report by McKinsey, Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions In A Time Of Automation, offers some useful insight:
“While about half of all work activities globally have the technical potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies, the proportion of work actually displaced by 2030 will likely be lower, because of technical, economic and social factors that affect adoption”.
McKinsey also states that between 3 and 14% of the global workforce will need to switch occupational categories between now and 2030 (that’s between 75 and 375 million people). That may sound high, but consider the certainty that new job types will arise in the landscape of the automated future. New skills may need to be learned by many, particularly in the event that adoption of automated processes occurs rapidly, but reassuringly, “very few occupations – less than 5% – consist entirely of activities that can be fully automated”.
On average, about half of activities conducted in the usual working day are technically capable of being automated with the use of existing technologies. What this means is that, rather than being out of work, workers will be able to hand over mundane and repetitive tasks to a machine, allowing them to focus on the creative and mentally-stimulating aspects of their jobs. So the human and the machine become colleagues, the human becomes more productive, creative and satisfied by their work, and the company benefits accordingly. This is the Multiplicity.
As an example, consider Amazon. The internet retail giant employs 100,000 robots in addition to its human staff. These robots autonomously deliver products from the warehouse to human packers, who use their sophisticated appendages (i.e. their hands) to perform the series of complex manipulations required in order to pack boxes well. Some may say packing boxes isn’t exactly stimulating, but trawling the shelves of expansive warehouses in search of a single product is arguably far less so.
Collaboration with robots at work not only has the capacity for relieving workers from boring tasks, it is also helping to remove humans from hazardous environments. Robots are now able to take over some of the most physically dangerous tasks required in a range of industries, whilst the human workers control and monitor the machine from a safe distance.
AI lives off data like we live off food. It cannot function without input. Like us, the higher the quality of input, the better it will perform. By the same token, with AI you don’t always get to understand the decisions it makes off the back of the data it is fed. Some systems will spew out highly detailed logs of the decisions it makes, the processes that led to those decisions can be highly complex. What’s more, they occur at a rate that is nothing short of staggering. The key, therefore, is trust, which can only really be established as the system demonstrates its overall value, via its performance, the savings it makes for the company, and for the revenue its employment generates. In this way, it is absolutely identical to any human worker.
Human-robot and human-computer interaction is not limited to the workplace by any means. It is Multiplicity that allows Netflix to suggest movies or series that you might want to watch, Amazon to recommend products you might be interesting, and Facebook to do its dubious things with your newsfeed posts. Recommendation engines like these, powered by algorithms, offer you better value from the systems with which you interact. In exchange, the preferences you display in those interactions offer the algorithms more data to feed on so that it may further refine its recommendations and improve the service the platform offers you on an individual level.
You also engage with Multiplicity whenever you use Google Maps to get you somewhere, or switch on cruise control in your car. Though entirely self-driving vehicles are probably decades away, early iterations allow us to share the job of driving between us, with the system telling us to take over for particular sections of road, or obediently taking the reins on a long stretch of motorway.
Bad News Sells
So, we are using robots and AI every day, if not at work then certainly in our personal lives. Multiplicity is already so woven into the fabric of our lives that we barely notice its presence, nor quite how reliant we are on these systems. So why is there so much negativity?
The media is, as usual, to blame for a lot of the scaremongering. Headlines about mass job losses get clicks, just as any topic covering some sense of impending doom will do. People simply prefer to read negative news than positive news. We’ve come to expect bad news so much that we will trust it over positive news. Positivity feels too much like propaganda, especially in the current political climate where unease and distrust dominate.
The tech giants don’t always help the matter, either. San Francisco recently suggested that we should consider taxing companies that replace human workers, using that tax to provide a universal basic income for displaced workers.
Universal Basic Income
The notion of a universal basic income is another which has been prevalent in the news recently. To me, the idea of a supplementary sum to keep me going whilst I concentrate on earning money from (creative) writing and illustration sounds like a dream. I mean, I love tech and everything, but I’d prefer to write novels, draw pictures and raise my daughter.
The idea of money for nothing, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t met with universal approval. There are plenty of people for whom their paying job is their life blood, not just a way to earn a living. They worry that, in a world where we are simply given money to live on, they’ll have nothing to keep them occupied. I can’t personally understand this perspective, though I do have serious concerns about the effect such a move might have on the global economy.
Paranoid About The Android
Premature discussion of the need to dispense money for nothing contributes to this undercurrent of panic that we’ll all become unemployed and replaced by machines. But the technologies themselves don’t help matters.
Boston Dynamics is a clear example of a company whose viral videos of backflipping robots and canine-like machines opening doors stir the cauldron. Sure, they may look terrifying for anyone who’s seen Terminator or that Black Mirror episode, ‘Metalhead’. But rest assured, Boston Dynamics’ robots look much more advanced than they really are. Unlike prevailing negative news reports, the YouTube videos only show the cuts where the tech actually worked as intended.
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges ahead. Just last week at least a dozen Google employees walked out in protest of the company’s collaboration with the Pentagon to develop autonomous weapons with the use of AI. There is a sense that we’re rushing ahead with the development of ever-more advanced AI without first having laws in place to protect us from misuse or from misguided inventions. It is not all sunshine and roses, and everything does need to be considered with intelligent forethought.
That said, a multiplicitous relationship with machines is, on the whole, a desirable arrangement. There are things that we cannot do that machines can, but there are equally as many things we can do which they cannot. Robots are brawn, humans are the brain. AI, at least for the meantime, is just a data processing tool.