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Machine Learning: Bane or Blessing for Mankind?

I noted that the renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking along with his colleagues Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek recommend moving cautiously in the development of artificial intelligence (AI), especially in the area of autonomous weapon systems. Hawking and his colleagues understand, however, that the AI genie has already been released from the bottle and there is no way to get it back in.

After noting Hawking’s concerns, Ron Neale comments, “Such a warning about the application of AI and its derivative intelligent machines (IMs), especially in the area of military application, might be appropriate. But what if IMs are really just a new branch on the tree of evolution that has led us from the original Protists to where we are today?” [“Artificial & Machine Intelligence: Future Fact, or Fantasy?” EE Times, 13 May 2014] Although Neale finds the prospect of a Skynet-like system (the AI system in “Terminator” that takes over and starts eradicating humans) frightening, he’s skeptical that such a system will ever exist. He explains:

“Fear not, because in my view, for IMs to come into existence requires a unique evolutionary key [— Synergistic Evolution (SE) —] and it is that aspect of evolution that suggests why it might not ever occur. Synergistic Evolution (SE) requires a species to be aided in its evolutionary process by another species. This is not the same as acting as a food stuff, where the existence of an earlier species acts as the food or fuel that allows those higher up the chain to exist and evolve. Or where species like dogs or horses that exist at the same time, on a different branch, allows a species to more easily obtain food to exist and evolve. The nearest equivalent example of SE might be a species variation such as selective breeding (unnatural selection), where human intervention is used to provide a characteristic, such as additional meat or milk in cattle or in hunting animals, dogs, or horses. In any flight of fancy, I think … three options … must be considered as possibilities: the first option [is the] the evolution of some very clever tools, weapons, and body parts that become an integral part of the human species tree; or the second option … a new branch on the tree of evolution; or the third option an extension of the human branch.”

Frankly, I’m not sure that the biological evolution analogy is a good one. Biological evolution essentially changes the organic characteristics of a species so that beneficial traits can be passed on to subsequent generations. Two of Neale’s options aren’t really biological a new branch it would be an entirely new tree.

Regardless of how artificial intelligence progresses in the years ahead, almost all pundits agree that the world will forever undergo a sea change as a result of advancement in AI. During a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Bill Gates harped on that the evolution because they aren’t organic (they fit much neater in the transhumanist framework). Only his “new branch of the tree” option could develop into an evolutionary process; but it wouldn’t be “mindset[s] of the government and people have not adjusted to view the future, even though technology is exploding this decade into a world of the Internet of Things and the propulsion into artificial intelligence.” [“Bill Gates outlines the mindset of A.I. for jobs in the future,” by Victoria Wagner Ross, San Diego Technology Examiner, 14 March 2014]

The greatest worry for many analysts, including Gates, is the number of jobs that artificial intelligence systems are poised to take over. Mark van Rijmenam reports, “The potential of Artificial Intelligence is enormous and in fact a 2013 study by Oxford University estimated that Artificial Intelligence could take over nearly half of all jobs in the United States in the near future.” [“Is Artificial Intelligence About to Change Doing Business Forever?” SmartData Collective, 8 March 2014] Ross also cites the Oxford University study. She writes:

“There are 702 occupations that will be affected by automation into the future of A.I. and robots according to [Carl Benedikt] Frey and his co-author, Michael Osborne, of the study. Frey who is a Ph.D. in economics was surprised how easily the algorithm replaced the loan officer. The loan officer was predicted with a 98% probability of replacement. A safer position at only 11% probability was journalists. Surgeons were at the lowest probability along with elementary school teachers.”

Ross reports that Gates asserted that “there are a couple of decades to re-set the mindset and prepare for the new occupation.” The question is: Exactly what occupations should students being prepared to fill? Gates believes that whatever new occupations emerge, the ones that will pay the best and be the most secure will require a good foundation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Ross explains, “Preparation will meet opportunity in the future and Gates educates government and people to be prepared to embrace the brave new world of artificial intelligence.” Most of the best jobs that will emerge will require close collaboration between humans and computers. Fortunately, we are raising a generation that is already being exposed to such collaboration.

“AI has allowed us humans to tailor-make robots that fit perfectly into our daily lives,” writes Zachary John, “suggesting faster routes to work, recommending TV shows we might like, even telling us jokes when we’re feeling down.” [“Robots: The Possibilities of Artificial Intelligence,” Guardian Liberty Voice, 22 March 2014] Dr. Kevin Curran, a technical expert at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), told Lee Bell “that AI is only getting better, as computational intelligence techniques keep on improving, becoming more accurate and faster due to giant leaps in processor speeds.” [“AI will play a vital role in our future, just don’t expect robot butlers,” The Inquirer, 14 March 2014] Like others, Curran believes that AI systems will continue to take on jobs now being filled by humans, especially “humans doing tedious automated tasks.”

Aki Ito reports, “Artificial intelligence has arrived in the American workplace, spawning tools that replicate human judgments that were too complicated and subtle to distill into instructions for a computer. Algorithms that ‘learn’ from past examples relieve engineers of the need to write out every command.” [“Your Job Taught to Machines Puts Half U.S. Work at Risk,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 12 March 2014] Like authors cited above, Ito points to the Oxford University study as proof that the future workforce is in need of a serious overhaul. Frey, co-author of that study told Ito that the global workforce would have to transform. “These transitions have happened before,” Frey stated. “What’s different this time is that technological change is happening even faster, and it may affect a greater variety of jobs.” Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is: Will there be enough good jobs to keep the global economy growing? After all, AI systems aren’t consumers and consumers are the essential ingredients  or sine qua non of economic growth.

Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory near Palo Alto, California, told Ito, “There will always be work for people who can synthesize information, think critically, and be flexible in how they act in different situations. Still the jobs of yesterday won’t be the same as the jobs of tomorrow.” Ito concludes, “Workers will likely need to find vocations involving more cognitively complex tasks that machines can’t touch. Those positions also typically require more schooling, said Frey. ‘It’s a race between technology and education.’”

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