Artificial Intelligence – Myth or Reality, Boon or Bane

Way back in 1969, as a kid, I watched a very interesting movie – “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It was a science fiction where a super intelligent computer program HAL is in-charge of a mission to Jupiter which also carries several astronauts. The program becomes rogue and tries to kill all the astronauts. The hero survives and manages to disable the program. There is a lot more to the plot, but the fight between human and computer is still vivid in my memory.

In 1969, such a scenario looked possible. After all 32 years is a lot of time given the rate of our progress. We are now in 2016, and it appears that something similar may happen in next 32 years.

Even the experts have been predicting that Artificial Intelligence or AI will happen in next 20 years. The irony is that this prediction is being made for more than 60 years now!

So, earlier it was “unbelievable but very near” … but now it is “believable but very far” … right?

Let us look more closely at the available evidence.

Did you ever get a feeling that Google search is able to read your mind and suggest what you are about to type? I have got so used to it that I feel mildly irritated when I have to type the whole query!

Similarly, while taking a photo, we take it for granted that the camera will correctly identify the people and focus on them. Facebook can be quite accurate in suggesting tags for uploaded images.

If you try Google Now, Microsoft Cortana or Apple Siri you will find that these voice recognition applications have become fairly good at understanding what you say.

These programs do not work or think like a human. But still they are very good at what they do. Sometime it can even surpass the best of human experts.

But it will still only a program – it will be as good as the experts who have written the program

Not true.

A new technique of programming that has evolved over last so many years that makes it possible for computers to do stuff without explicitly being programmed to do so. This technique is called Machine Learning (ML).

Nobody has programmed Google search to provide the suggestions that you get. The program has learned it based on what people have been typing in the search box. It also remembers your typing pattern. Based on this it makes prediction on what you might be interested in typing.

When you use ML, the programmer does not have to program for every condition.

Consider chess.

Once it was considered that computers with only brute force approach can never match the strategic thinking of a human mind. Chess programs today are far stronger compared to the top player in the world. By about 2006 top chess programs have become better than the world champion.

Chess is just a game. Real human intelligence cannot be replaced by such programs.

True … the computer may never think like a human.

But, if we look at human intelligence from the perspective of getting a work done then the scenario changes. Then it will not be necessary for the computer to think like human and do the work like a human would have done. Computer can use its own style in getting the job accomplished.

Routine manual work was being automated for quite some time now. Computers have now started encroaching into the territory of human experts.

Though the computers are incapable of exercising judgment or being creative or empathetic, it is only a part of what an expert does. When professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy. Robots and algorithms are getting good at jobs like driving cars, writing articles, translating … jobs that once required a human.

Computers are beating the best humans at:

  • Difficult games like Chess and Go
  • Predicting the likely decisions of courts more accurately than lawyers
  • Gauging the probable outcomes of epidemics
  • Providing a more accurate medical diagnosis
  • Stock trading
  • Financial fraud detection

We are witnessing the work of high-performing, unthinking machines.

We are not there yet but the human professionals are already being outperformed by a combination of brute processing power, lots of data and remarkable algorithms. What we have seen so far is only the tip of the iceberg.

Well, all that should be good for the society. If we are able to produce all that we need – with or without human intervention – then the society as a whole should prosper. Right?

There is no doubt that use of computers have allowed small team of workers to manage tasks that once required many people.

There is also no doubt that this process of automation has led to job loss and this process has just begun. There is enough indication that there are very few jobs that can be considered as safe from automation. The net impact of the productivity improvement has translated into higher profits for the enterprises and lower salary and job loss.

People who have lost their job are forced to work for lower salary. Those who are out of job or are working for lower wage will have no money to buy the goods and services. Our social and economic structure is not geared up for people not working.

First and foremost, we rely on work to distribute purchasing power: to give us the money to buy our bread. Even though we may have enough capacity to satisfy all our needs we still need a mechanism to reach it to the people. In the absence of any broader social change, pushing people out of work will simply redirect the flow of income from workers to firm-owners: the rich will get richer.

In addition, work is not just a means for distributing purchasing power. It is also among the most important sources of identity and purpose in individuals’ lives. If the role of work in society is to shrink, other sources of purpose and identity will need to grow. Some people will manage to find these things for themselves: pursuing passions too uneconomic to live on or engaging in voluntarism, just as many retirees find satisfying ways to fill their days. But others will find themselves at a loss.

Freeing people from work without social collapse will therefore require society to find ways other than pay for labour to channel money to those not on the job. Eventually, in our distant Star Trek future, we might get rid of money and prices altogether, as soaring productivity allows society to provide people with all they need at near-zero cost.

This should be a simple solvable problem … right?

A problem can only be solved if you recognize it to be a problem and recognize that the solution requires change which will not come by itself. There, primarily, are three reasons why this problem is not widely recognized.

  1. This is nothing new: Such job loss has happened many times in history. Every time such job loss has been compensated by better paying jobs elsewhere. There has been some temporary dislocation but the society has always benefited. You need not do anything – the market will take care … and everything will be fine.
  2. The job loss is because of them: The job loss is because of outsourcing. The job loss is because of immigrants. Get rid of outsourcing … get rid of immigrants … and everything will be fine.
  3. People out of work are lazy: Those who are unemployed has not adapted to the changing times. They have not put in the effort to learn new skills. All you need to do is educate them and train them … and everything will be fine.
  4. Inequality is good for society: Inequality is the mechanism through which the market generates and spreads innovation, which in turn generates opportunities for millions of individuals. The problem is not the inequality, but the poverty. Let us tackle poverty … and everything will be fine.

In last few decades, inequality has increased all over the world. For example, in USA, the share of the income of the richest 1% has increased from 9% in 1974 to about 25% now. The story in not different in other countries. Even in India the same is true.

However, this rise in inequality has not yet been linked to computers and automation.

That is why, people in Britain has decided that the cause of all their problem is immigrants coming from the EU nations.  That is why Donald Trump won the US presidential election – promising to throw out immigrants and bringing offshored jobs back to US. What people don’t realize is that even if outsourced work comes back to USA – it will come back through large scale automation and little job creation.

We will need to go through a phase where we unsuccessfully try out different solution to unemployment. When actions like throwing out immigrants and stopping outsourcing fails to generate jobs, we will conclude that may be automation is at the root cause of job loss.

Sherlock Holmes said to Watson in The Sign of Four – “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth”.

We need to go through a process where we eliminate all other causes of job loss and come to the conclusion that “automation is the main contributor to job loss” to be the truth.

Will that not be very slow and long drawn out process?

Maybe … but there are signs that we have already started moving in that direction.

There are signs that people have started correlating job loss, depressed wages and rising inequality to automation.

Read the following paragraph and try to guess who said this:

… jobs that are going be displaced by AI are not just low-skill service jobs; they might be high-skill jobs but ones that are repeatable and that computers can do. What is indisputable, though, is that as AI gets further incorporated, and the society potentially gets wealthier, the link between production and distribution, how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated — the computers are doing a lot of the work. As a consequence, we have to make some tougher decisions…

… whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? — that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years

Well, this is what Barack Obama said in an interview August 24, 2016.

Like we came to the realization that climate change is real and something needs to be done about it, we will also come to the realization that job losses through automation is real, all pervasive and irreversible.

Only way to tackle the negative fallout is a radical transformation of the society where, as Obama says, “how much you work and how much you make, gets further and further attenuated”.

The pursuit of automation has been driven by the desire to do more with less … to maximize return on investment … to maximize profit… to improve productivity … to link compensation to productive output … to cut out what is unnecessary.

In the new world order, because of automation, where more and more things are available in abundance … where the marginal cost of producing most things are being driven towards zero … where you don’t need people to produce stuff … where you need people to consume stuff – we need to evolve different set of rules!

We will probably focus on:

  1. Doing the unnecessary – creating something beautiful – creating something which you are passionate about
  2. Giving away stuff for free – because somebody needs it – because you can – because it might give you some business benefit later
  3. Investing in something with little chance of making money – because you believe that it the right thing to do – because you believe that there is an outside chance of success

Bah … nonsense … that is just wishful thinking

Allow me to argue my case.

I agree that the corporate world is about single minded pursuit of return on investment, of profitability, of productivity … but there is a life outside the corporate world.

As we had discussed earlier, in the new world order, people who win – win big. They land up with so much money they don’t know what to do with their money – after all there is a limit to how much shopping you can do. They may spend it on what is known as a “Moon-Shot” project, that is an exploratory project without any expectation of near-term profitability. They might fund other people’s risky idea. They might even give away the money in causes that they believe in or the movements that they want to support.

None of these actions get dictated by the traditional return on investment calculation.

Ok … but giving away stuff for free? … who does it?

Have you heard of an application call WhatsApp? What about Facebook? Gmail? YouTube? Twitter? LinkedIn? How much cumulative time do you spend on these applications … 3 hours a day?

Why do you get it for free?

  1. Because you believe that you can “monetize” your user base. You might do it by selling advertisement. Alternately, you can sell the company along with the user base. After all, in the new world of oversupply, having a loyal user base is the most prized possession. Remember … Facebook acquired WhatsApp – a company with practically no income –  for 19 billion dollars.
  2. Because you may be following a “Freemium” business model. When you are using Freemium, you give away the basic service for free but charge users for using premium features. For example, in a Google account you can store up to 15 GB of data and start paying beyond that. You follow this strategy to increase your user based with the hope that some of them, over time, will become a premium customer. You can afford to this because cost of adding a new user is close to zero and the money you receive for the premium customer is more than sufficient to run the business.

What about goods and services which are scarce?

True … not everything will be available in abundance … not everything will have a near zero marginal cost (how much it costs to produce an additional unit).

Only a limited number of people can go and watch the world cup final. It is limited by the capacity of the stadium. But does not prevent us from watching the final on our TV set.

That means, for such scarce things a virtual alternative be available which will have a near zero marginal cost. That is why there is so much interest in “Virtual Reality” equipment. Using these equipment, you can experience a three-dimensional environment that can be interacted with which you can interact using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

Today, the virtual reality can only to cater to two of our senses, that is vision and hearing. At a future date, we may be able to cater to the other three senses, that is tough, smell and taste.

Hmm … but who will want to do the unnecessary?

Really? Can’t you think of any example?

Was it necessary for Vincent Van Gogh to paint – in a style which was completely different. How much money did he make by selling his painting? Actually … he sold only one painting in his lifetime.

Was it necessary for Satyajit Ray to make “Pather Panchali”? Was is necessary for Shah Jahan to build the Taj Mahal?

How did Wikipedia come into existence? There are 30 million registered editors who have contributed their time and effort for free? Was it necessary for them to do it? Top four reasons why they have done it is:

  1. “Like the idea of volunteering to share”
  2. “Believe that information should be freely available”
  3. “Contribute to subject matter with expertise”
  4. “It’s fun”

Yes, it is fun. All of us have a creative urge. We create stuff to satisfy our creative urge. That is how “Linux” operating system gets created. That is how the whole “Open Source” movement works. That is the philosophy behind the “Creative Commons” movement – which helps you legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world.

In a nutshell, this is how, people not engaged in producing goods and services, will be able to earn:

  1. You will be paid to do the unnecessary because somebody believes in that cause or appreciates the beauty in what you are doing.
  2. You will be paid to help people pursue their dream even though the dream might turn out to be a mirage.
  3. You will get stuff for free because somebody can afford to do it or somebody is trying to build the user base or somebody is trying to protect the user base.

Society may still have to worry about people who will not want to do anything. Motivating them to do something will probably be a cause which some may want to pursue!

OK, point noted … but what should we do to adapt to the new world order?

That is probably the most important question because work scenario and by implication social structure will be nothing like what we are used to. The question is more relevant to people who have just started their working career or about to enter a working career.

  • Linear career progression is out – learning to embrace uncertainty – failure somewhere along the career is inevitable – learn the lesson from failure and move on.
  • Social skills are the most important thing – we still like to interact with humans – that is something computer cannot do.
  • When you have abundance of most things – when supply outstrips demand – ability to sell will be the most important skill – irrespective of what you do, you have to sell.
  • Find your passion and be passionate about it – find others who have same interest – find people who want to promote your passion.
  • Don’t be a loner – be part of communities – join ecosystems – be active in them.
  • Finally – enjoy – possibilities are limitless.

All that I have said so far is to point out that we have a logical contradiction to sort out. 

Thanks to automation, we will have the capability and capacity to produce all that we needbut people, because they are out of job, not having the money to buy them!

The producers of the goods and services will not want such a situation. But they are also very concerned about the spending power of their consumer. So, at a macro level, people losing job or opting for a lower paying job in not good news.

The government cannot afford such a situation – a situation where majority are out of job because of automation. Some form of income redistribution is inevitable.

For hundreds of years it was necessary to exploit people to become rich. Now to be rich you do not need to exploit people – you automate and reduce the dependency on people.

We must debate what government and society the will do to guarantee a minimum lifestyle to its citizens? Each society may come up with a different answer. Rich societies will guarantee more – poor society will guarantee less.

Interestingly, the one thing that you cannot automate is consumption – it can only be done by human will remain exclusively in the human domain so for the foreseeable future.

So, with supply outstripping demand, you may even get paid for consuming stuff!


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