• Matthew Chang

Will AI lead to new efficiency or human obsolescence?

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

Are robots really going to take over all the jobs and leave humans without work? The world’s leading innovators and inventors have started to share a similar vision. Great names like Elon Musk, Jack Ma, and Richard Branson, along with presidential hopefuls like Andrew Yang, all agree: Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI & ML) are going to adversely affect mankind and the wheels are already in motion. Every year technology increases at a faster pace than the previous year and the effectiveness of AI & ML increase. This leads to breakthroughs in automation, which move society forward and greatly benefit us all. Picture how advancements make our lives better, such as robotic surgery, GPS enabled farm harvesting machines, and voice-to-text on smart phones. Each of these is an example of innovation, mechanical automation, or artificial intelligence, so what’s the problem?

As technology advancements continue, the visionaries think that there is a tipping point where advancements can become counter-productive to society. Eventually machines will be able to teach machines how to build machines to automate every-day activities. When that happens, who will need workers? If mankind is no longer needed to work, who will pay wages? Certainly, the machines will work for the price of electricity and an occasional software update. New themes are emerging, such as universal basic income, limiting the functionality of AI, and abandoning the automation endeavor while there is still time.

As these dire warnings grow in their popularity, I am personally challenged to pick sides. The argument has been largely philosophical to date, held at a level above my head and my everyday life, so who cares? After all – weren’t we promised driver-less cars already? Weren’t major automotive companies supposed to manufacture vehicles without steering wheels by now?

First, a bit of context before I agree with one side or the other: I am a professional engineer engaged almost exclusively in automating factories and cities, alternatively known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Smart Cities Initiative. I went to Georgia Tech, and I have helped to design factories for AirBus, McCormick Spice, PepsiCo, Georgia Pacific, Keurig Dr Pepper, and The North Face. If anyone is interested in the future, it is these types of companies. It is my job to help them get there (to the future). In each instance, I have designed (as part of a team) and implemented the most cutting-edge technology available, often-times pushing the limit of what is possible and what has been done before. With first-hand knowledge, I can tell you that each of these companies employs the latest in mechanical automation and software automation.

So, after reflecting on the prevailing thought of today’s greatest visionaries, I’m left with the unpopular position of disagreeing completely. As I look at the lessons that history has taught us, it shows that the breakthroughs and disruptive technology do upset traditional employment and traditional paradigms, but those same disruptions take us to a new place of human progress that could not have been envisioned before.

So I must say to Mr. Musk, Mr. Ma, Mr. Yang, and Mr. Branson – as you are clearly students of the future, so too you must become students of the past. The advancements of AI and ML will advance human kind in ways not imaginable, and as a society we will adapt and become more efficient. We will still enjoy productivity and employment, but it will look different than it does today. We will not need universal basic income and we will not face obsolescence by machines.

For historical references I offer several exampl

  • Spreadsheets: Prior to excel and other electronic calculation tools, spreadsheets were made on paper with a pencil by an accountant and often took days to complete for a complex tabulation. The advent of electronic spreadsheets spelled certain doom for the industry because after anyone could make a spreadsheet in hours or minutes, who would need an accountant? The result: after the proliferation of electronic spreadsheets the accounting industry quadrupled. Why? Because the lower cost and faster processing of creating spreadsheets led to a higher demand by businesses, often wanting multiple scenarios per analysis in lieu of just one periodic review. https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/25/389027988/episode-606-spreadsheets

  • Automobiles: Before the Henry Ford assembly lines automobiles were assembled by hand. It was a labor of love and a painstaking task. Once, a famous futurist remarked: [By 2000,] "the automobile will have driven out the horse... The trip from suburban home to office will require a few minutes only." - J E Watkins, 1900. Henry Ford released his assembly line in 1913 and by 1927 over 15 million automobiles had been manufactured, an annual average of over one million per year! The lower cost and faster manufacturing time of vehicles made motor vehicles more affordable for the average family. Soon, city infrastructure began to morph to suit the car instead of the horse and carriage. As roads improved and the location of fueling stations increased the proliferation of cars accelerated.

  • Combine Harvester: Before modern harvesters were invented, most harvesting was done with more conventional methods using smaller tractors, by hand, or with horse powered devices. Over the years farm technology increased in scale and efficiency. One of the results was farm consolidation and the decrease in labor. In the year 1900 agriculture accounted for about 50% of jobs in the United States. By the year 2000 that number had plummeted to about 2% of jobs. At the same time, the cost of food has fallen from 40% of income to 10% of income. In 1900, it would have been hard to convince a farmer that in the future men and women would be paid to sit indoors in climate control on “automated electronic machines” (aka computers) and that that activity would be called “work”. Furthermore, it would have been even more difficult to convince the farmer that wages would actually rise for the indoor computer work. The advancement of farming technology has freed up labor to pursue other work, often involving more advanced education in the services industry.

Based on these examples, and countless more similar examples, I ask our visionaries to help us predict what the future will look like and what new and exciting reality we will live in. Clearly innovation and disruption lead to proliferation of the desired technology and “unlocking” of the human potential or new, unseen industries. It is pointless to forecast doom and gloom because history tells us that won’t happen – it’s just that right now we can’t yet envision what our lives will look like in this glorious future of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

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