Innovation has always been mankind’s way of doing more with less. It could even be argued that using tools to become more efficient and productive is one of the most unique characteristics of our species. This tradition dates back over three million years, with archaeologists uncovering primitive stone tools near Lake Turkana in Kenya as recently as 2015, thought to have been used by early humans for cutting and grinding purposes. In the span of those three million years, our tools have changed from sharpened stones to incredibly advanced machines, capable even of self-improvement in the form of machine learning and artificial intelligence. But does this innovation now threaten our very existence?
In 1955, the Daily Mirror published a headline that could easily be mistaken for one of the many LinkedIn articles floating around the blogosphere today, describing how artificial intelligence and automation will replace millions of jobs in the next few years. The title read, “Whatever your job is, the chances are that one of these machines can do it faster or better than you can.” The machines the Daily Mirror was referring to were some of the earliest computers ever made, often the size of a small room and with less computing power than a junior school calculator.
With sensationalist captions like this about the rising threat of machines having been around since the 1950s, should we really pay any attention to similar sentiments in today’s headlines? Luminaries across the ages have warned us of this threat, and now we can add one more to the list. Elon Musk tweeted in August of 2017, “If you are not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea.” Accompanying the tweet was an image of a poster that proclaimed, “In the end the machines will win,” later to be revealed as an anti-gambling advertisement, although not obvious at first glance. A close reading of the tweet would suggest that Musk was not completely serious, although not completely joking either.
We know that this was not just a PR stunt by Musk – the likes of which he has become rather infamous for – as a few months earlier, at the World Government Summit in Dubai in February 2017, he voiced his serious opinion about the subject, as it relates to the possible replacement or displacement of jobs. In this regard he said that world governments may need to consider some form of universal income, since he believes that automation and AI will more than likely be able to replace up to a third of the world’s workers. He added that “there will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better [than humans].” Along with this rapid increase in automation, however, he believes there will come abundance, and everything will become very cheap, but there will also be the material problem of far fewer jobs, especially among less skilled labour, as on the factory floor for example.
So then, should we truly be concerned about robots taking our jobs? One can certainly make the case that in the last few years, developments in AI have really borne fruit. Today, AI can recognise musical genres more accurately than humans, put images in categories better than us, and can beat the world’s best players at strategic games like chess, Texas Hold ’Em Poker, and the ancient Chinese game of Go. But these are not pursuits that are changing lives. Yet, developments in the fields of medicine and science may be even more impressive, with AI now having the ability to outperform doctor diagnoses in areas such as lung cancer screening, preventing and detecting diabetes, spotting diabetes-related blindness that is curable if found early enough, and even picking up genetic disorders in DNA.
If Musk’s predictions were to be true, and there is a real chance of millions losing their jobs to machines, one could certainly see how there may be a Luddite-like reaction to this new age of automation, with large swathes of the unemployed setting out to hinder or even destroy the progress made in this technological field. But, the Luddites ended up on the wrong side of history and so will anyone who undertakes the foolhardy mission of trying to stop innovation and technological progression. On an individual level then, the enlightened response would be to rather look inward and to seek self-improvement, gaining skills and experience in fields that would make one more valuable in this new world order, as opposed to fighting against the unstoppable force of technological advancement.
As some have argued in the face of those who try and shout down the advancement of AI, machine learning and automation, these technologies may end up making us more human. With software and hardware performing the various tasks in our daily lives that take up the most time, are the most menial, and involve a great deal of repetition or brute force, we can spend that extra time being more creative, more caring, or simply more human. This will hopefully give hard-working individuals back the freedom to choose to spend more time with their families and friends, to contemplate what is really important, and perhaps even more time to do what is so unique to our species: innovate further.