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Should we fear artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a rather attentive subject. Most people seem to agree that this new fascinating technology will, or at the very least have, the ability to change our society in  dramatic ways. But what they don’t agree on is whether this change will be good or bad for mankind. In the western world today, many blue-collar workers fear for their jobs as new economies grow bigger and offer cheaper labor for factories. Many worry that job insecurity will increase as they start to compete with robots.

If you walk into Eatsa restaurant in San Francisco you won’t order from a waiter nor will a waiter bring you the food. In this futuristic restaurant you order your food from an iPad and then pick up your food from a hole in the wall. You won’t have any human interaction whatsoever. This restaurant is very hip, and its style draws attention. But this isn’t the first of its kind, nor will it probably be the last. All over the world robots are starting to perform more and more work tasks. Some studies suggest that by 2030 up to 50% of all restaurant jobs will be performed by robots.

It is clear that robots will be able to perform many tasks in different job sectors. And it isn’t just blue-collar workers that are put in risk. Many white collar-jobs such as economist and lawyer might be replaced by A.I technology. In the US there are already programs that are more effective than humans at doing some tasks that lawyers used to do. And already there is A.I. technology becoming self-learning. And one day they might surpass human intellegence. If that’s the case, even more jobs might be put at stake.

Image: Oinonio, Flickr

On the other hand, many economists say that this fear is exaggerated. Fear for automation isn’t new. During the 19th century there was a movement called the Luddites that smashed all new sewing machines because they feared it would create unemployment and worsening living standards. In the short term, they were kind of right, but in the long run the industrial revolution lead to great benefits for society as a whole. During the industrial revolution the living standards diminished as people moved in to the cities. Diseases spread, and many suffered from malnutrition during times of unemployment. But if it weren’t for the industrial revolution, our standard of living wouldn’t be what it is today.

Of course, many of the sewing jobs might have been taken over by machines, but that enabled the clothing industry to grow in the long term. Therefore, it can be misleading to say that 50% of all jobs in the restaurant business will disappear because, as it does not take in count all the new jobs that might come. Drawing a parallel to today, A.I technology might take many jobs in the restaurant industry, but since their production costs sink they can expand and hire programmers that can handle robots. But for this to happen people of course need to be flexible and retrain themselves, adapting to the market and its demand on labor.

Even if automation perhaps won’t create the unemployment that many fear, it doesn’t mean that the fear itself isn’t real. It is very real and deserves to be taken seriously. For the 2016 US presidential election Donald Trump promised that he would take back all the jobs “lost” to globalization. This is a hard task, if it’s even possible. Nevertheless, people obviously listened to his claims. We should definitely learn from this and take people’s insecurity seriously if we don’t want them to fall into the hands of populism.

One popular proposal to handle this insecurity is basic income. By giving people a guaranteed income, they can rest assured that no matter what, they will be able to afford to pay the rent, put food on their table and have a decent standard of living. But this isn’t enough. People need to become more flexible and choose their education wisely, so they don’t see them self getting a college education that turns out to be worthless. This is the type of questions that need to be discussed. We need to offer real solutions to people’s insecurity.

Image: BagoGames, Flickr

All this being said, there is another aspect of A.I. technology that we should bear in mind. As A.I. technology become more and more sophisticated some say that the survival of mankind is put at risk. The tech guru Elon Musk is one of them. Speaking at MIT in 2014 Musk said:

“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. You know all those stories where there’s the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he’s like, yeah, he’s sure he can control the demon? Doesn’t work out.”

This sounds very alarming, and one might ask if it isn’t exaggerating. But Musk isn’t alone in this point of view. Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking also have concerns about the A.I. technology and see the risk of A.I. wiping out mankind. So perhaps there it is in the best interest of us all to monitor this development closely and regulate it, whilst we still can.

So, should we fear artificial intelligence? There are good arguments going both ways. And anticipating technological development has always been notoriously hard. But it should be clear that this is an issue worth close scrutiny. Both due to social developments within jobs and education. But also, on a larger scale. We’ve all seen Terminator and The Matrix. Out of control robots are simply not very fun.

Albert Wendsjö

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