Artificial Intelligence Revolution

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You say you want a revolution? Ready or not, a revolution is coming. It’s coming for you and me. It’s coming soon. You might want to try to hold onto your job. And your dignity. But good luck with that.

“The real battles that lie ahead will lack the apocalyptic drama of Hollywood blockbusters, but they will disrupt the structure of our economic and political systems all the same. Looming before us in the coming decades is an AI-driven crisis of jobs, inequality and meaning. The new technology will wipe out a huge portion of work as we’ve known it, dramatically widening the wealth gap and posing a challenge to the human dignity of us all.”

AI stands for Artificial Intelligence. If you want to be cool and appear in the know, you can begin dropping the AI acronym into your conversation or writing whenever possible.

The above quote is from a long piece written by Kai-Fu Lee in the Sept. 15-16 weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal. (I’m not in the habit of reading the WSJ, because I own no stocks and no bonds. But I sometimes pick it up if Publix is sold out of the NYT. Maybe I should read the WSJ more often? But I digress.) The article is entitled “The Human Promise Of The AI Revolution.” (See, I didn’t make up the “revolution” part.) Here’s another chilling quote from the WSJ article:

“This unprecedented disruption requires no new scientific breakthrough in AI, just the application of existing technology to new problems. It will hit many white-collar professionals just as hard as it hits blue-collar factory workers.”

Gosh, I’ve been focusing my worry on global warming, climate change, and the rising sea level. (And Donald Trump, of course. But I promise not to digress in that direction.) Now I have to worry about artificial intelligence as well? No problem. I have a nearly unlimited capacity for Worry, with a capital “W.”

Global Warming and Artificial Intelligence

After reading the aforementioned article, I can see similarities between Global Warming and Artificial Intelligence. Both sound like science fiction with hints of apocalypse.

Both promise unprecedented change with astonishing but uncertain consequences. Many people hope and believe that humans will be able to exert some degree of control over both global warming and artificial intelligence. (This is the “It might not be too late” school of optimism.)

Most folks have heard about global warming, but hope its most dangerous consequences are way off in the future. Many folks have not heard about artificial intelligence. Yet. But  if they have, they assume it is way off in the future.

Many people are aware that global warming has probably been happening for some time. Many acknowledge that we are already experiencing the first effects of global warming and climate change, manifesting as annoying shifts in weather patterns and apparent increase in the size and frequency of catastrophic storms.

However, it hasn’t dawned on many folks that artificial intelligence, like global warming, is already happening. Both global warming and artificial intelligence are HERE, NOW.

A Glacier And A Locomotive

I think I can get away with one more quote from the Kai-Fu Lee article in the WSJ. After all, I’m going to give him free publicity for his forthcoming book.

“The AI revolution will be of the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution — but probably larger and definitely faster. Where the steam engine only took over physical labor, AI can perform both intellectual and physical labor. And where the Industrial Revolution took centuries to spread beyond Europe and the U.S., AI applications are already being adopted simultaneously all across the world.”

Larger and faster than the Industrial Revolution!!!

Here’s my interpretation: Global warming is moving — not as slowly as a glacier, perhaps — but slowly, in terms of human years.

Global warming can make big changes in the lifetime of one human.

Artificial Intelligence, meanwhile, is moving more like a speeding locomotive — more like dog years than human years.

Artificial intelligence can make big changes in the lifetime of one dog.

And what about that Kai-Fu Lee book? It is “AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.” There’s a title to strike fear into the heart. The book is scheduled to be published next week, Sept. 25, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. So says the WSJ.

And who is this guy Kai-Fu Lee? Never heard of him. He appears to have serious credentials in the brave new world of AI. You could Google him.

— John Hayden

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10 thoughts on “Artificial Intelligence Revolution

  1. Yes, it’s definitely true and certainly already here. Losing jobs is just a small part of the problem. The entire environment for human beings will change, along with the social structure, just as this fellow was saying. For those of us who’re already retired, there’s not that much to worry about. And if we look at the way people lived two hundred years ago (at the start of the industrial revolution), and how they live today, there’s even room for optimism. But the digital revolution is moving very quickly with changes exponential. There will be many that will find the world they counted on has disappeared.

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    • You are way ahead of the curve here! Sounds like you are much more aware of what’s happening than most of the rest of us. You and I will probably not see the full impact of global warming in our lifetimes. But if Mr. Lee is correct, AI changes are coming at us like a speeding locomotive. I expect to live long enough to see the first major impacts of AI. I think it will be increasingly severe disruption in the workplace resulting in displacement of large numbers of people from the work they know how to do. Possibly to be followed by a degree of social unrest not seen since the French revolution. You are right, Mr. Lee does hold out hope for positive adaptation in the midst of chaos. In my opinion, he is whistling as he walks past the graveyard.

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  2. A few years ago, my neighbor’s great-grandson asked for help with a science project. Jay is an old sheep farmer has been maintaining detailed weather records that were also kept by his father and grandfather.

    Farmers are remarkably wise and understand that what the weatherman says is not as important as the weather that actually hits your fields. That is why they keep detailed local records. In meteorological terms this is called micro-climate and it is a big deal in farming. Jay’s grandson thought this would be helpful for his kid’s project.

    “So what is the topic of your project?” Jay asked.

    The kid said, “the difference between climate and weather.”

    So Jay led the kid out to the big tank where his sheep are watered and pointed to the water flowing out of the pump. “That’s climate,” he said, then pointing to the water in the tank, he said, “that’s weather.”

    In more detailed terms, the temperature of the ground water precisely reflects the average annual temperature of a region. If the aquifer temperature changes, you have climate change (and not until). The water in the tank reflects the average temperature measured in hours or days, which is what we call weather.

    Carrying that analogy to disruptive innovations and the economy. Jobs gained or lost due to technological changes is like weather. People still need to work and earn money – but just as importantly, in order to sell, you must have buyers. No matter what automation or AI does, it will always find a way to create consumers. The more, the better. The sum total of this is the climate of what we call the economy.

    Never confuse weather with climate.

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    • I hadn’t understood that about groundwater. Good information to know. I would add that more than half the Earth’s surface is ocean water. I think the oceans play a prominent role in producing our weather, and the polar ice caps have something to do with climate. But actually, these are things I admit to knowing little about.

      It was somewhat revolutionary when Henry Ford announced that he wanted to pay his workers not just enough for them to survive and work, but enough that workers could afford to buy the products they produced! Historically, I believe, masses of workers were needed and valued for two reasons: first, to support the lifestyles of the aristocracy; and second, to provide men for large armies. The serfs of feudal times, the slaves of the American south, and the sweatshop workers of the early industrial revolution, none of them played much of a role as consumers. Whether the consumer-based economy will continue into the future, I do not know.

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      • I think the oceans play a prominent role in producing our weather, and the polar ice caps have something to do with climate.

        You nailed that one.

        I like to illustrate the point by asking my neighbors to guess which places in Europe are as far north as we are. It shocks people who live along the Minnesota/Iowa border to learn that they reside at the same latitude as northern Spain.

        “Sure don’t feel like it,” they say.

        It is also fun to pull a thought experiment on them regarding climate. I ask them to guess what would happen to the sea level in Boston Harbor if all of the ice in Greenland were to melt and flow into the sea.

        After a few typical bad guesses, they are stunned to learn that the sea level would drop. It may seem counter intuitive, but if you understand how gravity drives the tides, you realize that all ice is literally pulling the sea towards it. Gravitational Attraction of Ice Sheets on the Sea

        and the sweatshop workers of the early industrial revolution, none of them played much of a role as consumers.

        Be careful about that one. As odd as it seems, every decade millions of people migrate from rural and third world regions to work in sweatshops and that speaks volumes about the poverty and degradation of where they came from. We may not consider them consumers – but they definitely see that it is easier to buy their food and clothes than have to scratch the dirt for them.

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      • Yes, I agree. Today’s urban workers all over the world are consumers. I was trying to make the point that the consumer-driven economy as we know it is a relatively recent invention. Henry Ford wasn’t the first person to recognize the importance of consumers to the economy, but he made it crystal clear when he explained why he was paying his assembly line workers more money than the absolute minimum. The consumer economy requires people with disposable income, as you noted in your first comment. I think sweatshop workers in the period of say, 1880-1900, before the modern economy really got going, were mostly subsistence workers, same as peasants struggling to grow enough food to eat.

        So far, technological innovation and automation have left room for workers to earn disposable income. But what happens if AI renders a large part of the human workforce unnecessary? One of the possible solutions Mr. Lee mentions is a universal minimum income, paid by the government. That might keep a lid on social unrest among the unemployed masses, and at the same time provide fuel to keep the consumer economy alive. On the other hand, it is not unheard of for a powerful elite to literally allow large numbers of its own people to starve to death. For example, the Irish potato farmers during the famine, or quite a large number of people in North Korea more recently. Many of the Irish died, but others were able to flee to America. The North Koreans did not have the option to flee.

        I have no idea what will happen in the future. I’m simply trying to get my mind around the range of possibilities. One possibility is that the AI revolution will not have the impact on the human workforce that some imagine and fear. I keep thinking about Y2K. We thought all the computers might freeze up and airplanes would fall from the sky. Didn’t happen. We were wrong about Y2K. Our fears did not materialize. Maybe human efforts caught all the programming problems before Y2K arrived, or maybe Y2K was a hoax. My poor brain does not understand very much about the past, and my brain definitely cannot predict the future. But maybe Mr. Lee can predict the future.

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  3. An excellent post on this very disturbing subject that not many are even ‘remotely’ aware of what is happening behind the scenes.. Those futuristic films of AI and robots are not that far off from being introduced into our reality..
    I was also reading up on this subject the other month and its scary the progress and the amount of WILLING information we all are giving these systems that it is not only a run away train, but probably unstoppable unless something major overtakes the Earth to stop technology in its tracks..
    And people are at the moment playing right into its hands.. Already I see the human race becoming more like Zombies as they look dazed into their computer/ phone games that take them into their own ‘dead-zones’ of zoning out of reality.. While FB gathers information on everyone’s fears, likes and data about their personal lives..
    Robots are already in motion in distribution and we have even experiments and trials here on Convoy Lorries with no drivers on motor ways.. Scary beyond belief Let alone the clones of robot women being manufactured for pleasure.. to those who can afford them… I couldn’t believe what I read either..
    And yes its already here…
    Great piece John..
    Take care…
    Sue 🙂

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