One of the smartest minds in technology, Elon Musk, is terrified of robots. This is the guy who’s referred to as the “modern day Iron Man,” and he is worried about robots walking the streets and shooting down humans. His sentiments sound an alarm on the rise of technology, the very industry from which he has built his empire.
In fairness, we should clarify that robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are not one in the same. Robots may employ machine learning or AI, but the Roomba (robot) that vacuums your floor is not the same as IBM’s Watson (AI machine). At least for now.
Here are some definitions to get us on the same page. These are ordered from least to most scary, which is just another way of saying least to most intelligent:
|Chat Bot||A content robot that answers basic questions and performs simple digital tasks, such as submitting a ticket for human service. A chat bot is your basic bot—simply spitting back information that has been fed to it.|
|Automation||The use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process. This is not a bot, but a technology that, when deployed, exceeds human capacity (read: replaces human workers at scale).|
|Machine Learning||The ability of a machine to improve at a task with experience. This is about self-improvement over time.|
|Artificial Intelligence||The ability for a system to incorporate past events to change its actions in the future. This is about making decisions to inform future actions. This is the one that keeps Elon up at night because it doesn’t need any humans and quickly exceeds human capability.|
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s get back to the original premise of this post. Why is AI so scary to us?
- Our occupation often defines us. American identity is strongly linked with our occupations, and the rise of technology is disrupting nearly every industry and job role—or will soon.
- For most of us, manual labor is easier than emotional labor. Automation forces us to step away from manual labor and hard skills, and focus more on relationships and emotional intelligence. We’re becoming increasingly bad at this thanks to our preference for digital over live connection. In fact, “face to face interaction has dropped to third behind texting and IM/FB messaging in the so called ‘iGeneration,’ or those born from 1990-1999” and as a result, “‘digital natives’ […] are already having a harder time reading social cues.”
- Our current definition of capitalism is at risk. The shifting role of humans and the forced definition of what is inherently human is a threat to capitalist ideals. If people are no longer doing the work, then who is the American Dream for?
Let’s take these one by one.
1. Our occupation often defines us.
Human jobs are inevitably going to disappear and evolve; no one knows exactly what they’ll evolve into. People are change-averse. We are wired towards self-preservation, so any form of the unknown is a threat to our lizard brains. We can see change coming because Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are telling us it is—and they are driving it with drone delivery and cashier-less retail. Regardless, no one knows what jobs will, and should, remain in the hands of humans as we incorporate these new technologies into the workplace. Additionally, this is arguably the first time in history where white collar jobs are as equally under threat as the blue collar ones. Conceivably, no one is safe.
This is particularly terrifying since American culture conditions us to correlate our occupations to our core identity. If you are a teacher, you must love children. If you are a lawyer, you are motivated by justice. The American Dream maintains that everyone, no matter who they are, can climb the ranks of society. While some might question the accessibility and equality of access to that dream, it is still the cultural narrative that surrounds us. It’s partially why “unemployed men have a rate of depression twice that of unemployed women, and unemployment may double or even triple the risk of male suicide.” Americans by and large accept that what you do says a lot about who you are. Do nothing and you are nothing.
2. For most of us, manual labor is easier than emotional labor.
We are transitioning, so if we no longer have to do manual labor, at the very least we have to do emotional labor. Basically, if robots and technology replace manual, hands-on work, that heightens the emphasis on “soft skills” or work that falls into the relationship management and emotional intelligence categories—at least until affective computing matures. Thanks to an ever-connected social media society, our “real relationship” skills are lacking and getting worse with every generation. Case in point: how many of your Facebook friends do you actually spend time with? Are you more likely to return a phone call or a text? We are more savvy at, and prone to, digital connection than genuine human interaction, yet our expanded capacity, due to technology enablement, will push us into the emotional realms more than we are currently comfortable.
Warren Weaver, one of the first to think about the impacts of computing on humans, said it best in 1948:
Knowledge of individual and group behavior must be improved. Communication must be improved between people of different languages and cultures […] A revolutionary advance must be made in our understanding of economic and political factors. Willingness to sacrifice selfish short-term interests, either personal or national, in order to bring about long-term improvement for all must be developed. (Science and Complexity)
Essentially, Weaver called for greater human connection, understanding, and care as key areas of focus to balance new capabilities brought by machines.
3. Our current definition of capitalism is at risk.
Still, changing work and disappearing jobs represent an even more profound shift than potential unemployment. Capitalism as we know it is being challenged, and class lines are eroding. A quick refresher on your high school economics:
“Capitalism is a social system based on the principle of individual rights. Politically, it is the system of laissez-faire (freedom). Legally it is a system of objective laws (rule of law as opposed to rule of man). Economically, when such freedom is applied to the sphere of production its result is the free-market.”
Capitalism relies on a free market which presents the possibility of balance and equilibrium. Despite massive inequality in global wealth distribution, capitalism today relies largely on human labor (and compensation for that labor), thus creating just enough wealth distribution to self-sustain. In other words, capitalism only works if everyone has at least some money.
The eradication of a working class of humans has serious economic impacts that need to be addressed in parallel with technological advancements, so it is no coincidence that Universal Basic Income is a topic of discussion as we consider machines’ implications for the future of work. AI will create an exponential imbalance of economic power and wealth distribution in favor of those who control the technology. If the global economy is a zero sum game, then introducing a factor that allows a few entities to amass all the chips is apocalyptically frightening. “It’s starting to feel like humans have made themselves redundant in their own economy. That sounds like utopia, but until we recognize that it means whoever has the most money will win forever, it’s going to be a pretty shocking life for most of us.” (Octane AI)
If robots become the working class, then none of the definition of capitalism applies, unless we start acknowledging machines as individuals with rights, with the capacity to participate in a social system. As it is defined above, the free market goes away now that machines and automation can do human work better and faster, without the balance of purchasing power. Robots can enable mass production, but they don’t distribute the wealth needed to purchase those goods—essentially minimizing economic freedom. Also, laws don’t yet apply to robots. There are many ethics committees forming to discuss “robot rights” and what regulations and laws should be in place to prepare for the robot revolution, but there are more currently questions than answers. For instance, can the concept of “freedom” be applied to a machine?
So we are back to humans being displaced in something that is not only the foundation of American ideals, but a key element to our sense of self and, according to some, the very essence of our moral being. Idle hands make the Devil’s work, after all.
The purpose of this post is to unpack why the initial reaction to new AI capabilities is so strong, not to perpetuate existing fears. The current tenor and reaction are supremely human and arguably patriotic. The reality is, like any technological revolution (this is the fourth one if you ask the experts), we are at the cusp of a new world full of amazing possibilities—so amazing that we cannot even begin to fathom the true impacts. It is a time to be creative and invent. It is the time to eradicate seemingly unsolvable problems that plague us. It is the ultimate opportunity to redefine what it means to be human, and that is nothing to be afraid of.