Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: Artificial Intelligence is Here. It May Soon be Conscious. And it May Want to Take Your Job (If it hasn’t Already)

It requires no sleep, vacations, sick days or maternity leave. It knows nothing of leisure, and demands neither love nor comfort. It can learn, and it never forgets. It does not age, does not slow down; indeed, it only becomes exponentially faster. It is artificial, often digital, sometimes neural, sometimes quantum, but ever present, and here. If it hasn’t already, it may soon take your job. Welcome to the brave new world.

Artificial Intelligence (AGI) has lived in the fertile minds of science fiction writers and futurists since the advent of the computer. But as incredibly powerful as digital computers have become, they have, until now, fallen short when it comes to the most impressive characteristics of the human mind: simply being human (creating art and exhibiting empathy for example), unstructured problem solving, deciding relevancy within a maze of undefined phenomena, and non-routine physical work.

sam harris

But this is changing fast. Too fast for some. Edge issued a call for perspective on AGI called “2015: What do you think about machines that think?” Over 180 public intellectuals responded. The most salient response, in my view, came from Sam Harris, who said:

Imagine, for instance, that we build a computer that is no more intelligent than the average team of researchers at Stanford or MIT—but, because it functions on a digital timescale, it runs a million times faster than the minds that built it. Set it humming for a week, and it would perform 20,000 years of human-level intellectual work. What are the chances that such an entity would remain content to take direction from us? And how could we confidently predict the thoughts and actions of an autonomous agent that sees more deeply into the past, present, and future than we do?

Interesting, and troubling, questions, to be sure. Computers, for example, are now breaking the law, seemingly deaf to moral, ethical or legal human compunctions. The Swiss, for example, created a computer robot shopper, giving it a weekly Bitcoin budget of $100, to shop until it dropped, making random purchases as it pleased within the budget. In November of 2014 it purchased Diesel jeans, a pair of Nikes, and, somewhat embarrassingly, 10 ecstasy pills. Oops.

watson


However, the practical implications a machines out-thinking us, and thus performing tasks once thought could only be performed exclusively by us Homo sapiens, is already upon us, having crept up so slowly that many don’t even realize it.
The philosophical and moral implications of humans creating self-aware machines that can out-think us, and that may put their own self-interest above their creators, is troubling, but so far relegated to the minds of futurists to be more seriously considered at a later date. Perhaps, though, in the not-too-distant future.

The outsourcing of manufacturing and many service jobs has essentially destroyed the middle class. Corporations moved manufacturing and call centers to cheaper locals. Domestic manufacturers increasingly use robots: they don’t tend to complain about low wages or unionize. But computers have not only replaced repetitive tasks once exclusively performed by human laborers, they are gradually replacing intellectual talent as well. Jacob Silverman’s brilliant piece in The Baffler, “The Crowdsourcing Scam” is destined to become a prophetic classic. He describes how once lucrative, prestigious full-time jobs in advertising, sales, marketing, consumer reporting, among many other areas, have been eliminated, sometimes completely, with the help of computing power, sophisticated software, and the internet. Geographical location has been becoming less and less important for decades. Professional freelancers are becoming the norm: they’re cheap, and they work on a per-project basis. No payroll, no benefits. Contractors only.

And of course, it gets worse. Digital computing, neural networks, and other computer technologies such as quantum computing, have become so efficient they may even replace what we’ve always thought to be irreplaceable: intellectual human talent. Computers are no longer sophisticated calculators. They are thinking machines. Increasingly sophisticated, they may in fact be poised to think us goopy, stinky humans out of jobs, leaving only elite, rich, human super-supervisors in (at least some semblance) of control.

IBM’s Watson, which won the 2011 Jeopardy! Competition, is now doing legal research with a program called Ross: “It’s able to do what would take hours to do in seconds,” says Andrew Arruda of Toronto’s Azevedo & Nelson. Another Watson prototype, called Watson Discovery Advisor, is advising doctors on more effective treatments by scanning the medical literature, performing in two seconds what would take a medical researcher two weeks to accomplish. Journalists may even be replaced by Quill, an “automated narrative generation platform.”


Of course there are some things that artificial intelligence may be forever incapable of. But what we once thought were impossible tasks for machines no longer are; the boundaries are being pushed back every day. What might be replaced next? Surely more jobs, and not just in the trades, but even in professions once performed exclusively by humans.

Which raises an even more disturbing question: If the trend continues (there is no serious argument that it will mysteriously and suddenly stop), what are we replaced working humans to do with ourselves? The Utopian view is that we will be released to pursue our leisure interests, our families, our passions apart from work for the sake of earning an income through work with which we often have no real interest. But how might we survive, let only thrive, without a salary? The dystopian view is that the majority of us without a super-specialty, an irreplaceable talent, will simply be cast off to the new majority underclass, while corporate profits skyrocket on the backs of machines. If history is any guide, and I were a betting man, I would have to place my chips on the latter proposition.

There is of course, another option. Manitoba experimented with this it the 1970s, investing $17 million in the small community of Dauphin, giving everyone a Universal Basic Income (called “Mincome”). Everyone received a set amount for basic needs, tax free. If they chose to work, invest, or start businesses, any income thereby derived was taxed. The result? Life improved: fewer accidents, fewer hospital visits, and better mental health. People were free to pursue their interests, their passions, without the risk of losing everything. This was a very progressive idea at the time, and controversial ─ there was a certain smack of communism to it. Critics claimed that a minimum basic income, unrelated to need, would rob people of motivation. It didn’t. People formerly on public assistance transferred to Mincome, where there were no restrictions on how they could spend the money. They started businesses, enrolled in school, and in job training programs. Not surprisingly, when then Conservatives took control of the government in 1979 the program was scuttled. 1,800 boxes of data were packed up and sent to storage; a final report was never released.

Of course the idea of universal basic income has its critics, but one criticism cannot be that it is communism under a different name. There is no central planning, recipients are free to spend the money how they wish in the economy, and the free market remains in place. Needs-based social welfare spending, and the massively expensive bureaucracy it employs could be eliminated. Creating a smaller government, and people freer from government intrusion. More freedom, more individual autonomy.

And we’re not talking about some progressive, liberal, socialist social experiment here. No pseudo-hippies singing Imagine or All We Need is Love, sitting in a tepee smoking a hookah.  An Oxford study concluded that 47 percent of current occupations are likely to be replaced by thinking machines in less than 20 years. Bakers, construction workers, journalists, taxi and truck drivers, farmworkers, paralegals, pharmacy workers, medical workers, real estate agents, airport security and customs officers, airline pilots ─ all virtually gone from the human job market.

But where would the money come from to provide everyone with a minimum basic income? Well, there would be an enormous boost in corporate profits from the elimination of half of the salaried work force, to be sure. And then there’s the $51 billion spent annually by the U.S. on the fatuous and unwinnable drug war (trillions annually worldwide). Of course cutting back on the nearly $600 billion annual military spending might not be such a bad idea either. This list is long. The money is there.

So it seems that there is a choice looming very near on the horizon of human civilization. It is a choice between the unleashing of The Hunger Games, or the unleashing of human potential, where all have the opportunity to lead dignified, fulfilling lives.

Too stark a contrast of choice? We’ll see.

 

© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson.

Five Profession to Avoid

As the academic year gets going, college Freshmen are taking their general education courses and contemplating majors, hunting for the hot new professions that might allow them to pay their crippling student loan debts, often eschewing what might actually interest them.

As it turns out, the hottest new profession ─ and the one that pays the least ─ is robot[1], but I’d rather just focus on humans for now. There’s lots to choose from if you look labor statistics and employment trends. All the STEM related professions are good bets, for example. There’s an embarrassment of choices, so to make things easier I’ll start at the other end and give my opinion on what professions to absolutely avoid, but not because they won’t make you rich. They’re just useless to our species.

Drumroll, please.

dog whisperer

  1. Dog Whisperer. I’m with Leo Rosten on this one. Dogs are assholes. They’re insufferably needy. They require constant attention and praise, unfailingly to be found at your feet, begging for approval, saying, “Look at me, look at me, don’t you love me?” Kind of like god. Cats, on the other hand, are cool. They don’t give a shit. Forget to feed them? Not a problem. They’ll hunt down a rodent or dig through your neighbor’s trash, which is okay because your neighbors are Mormons and Mormon trash doesn’t contain anything interesting. No makeshift bongs made from apples, no porn, not even coffee grounds (what a scandal that would be). But we have to pay someone $200 an hour to psychologically analyze our dogs and tell us the reason he pisses on the sofa? Cats don’t need professional advice or life coaches, they’re just ‘livin it.

Let me save you the money. Dog’s piss on the furniture because they’re dogs. My wife recently got mad at me for refusing to give our impetuously spoiled asshole of a miniature poodle a piece of steak. Really? He eats three squares, sleeps all day, occasionally finds the energy to shit, and I still need to feed him prime steak? When I was a kid, our dogs licked their balls, laid around all day, humped an available leg on occasion, and seemed perfectly content without the advice from experts. He (a barky little bastard of a miniature poodle) was recently neutered, but retains his scrotum for some odd reason. I woke up last week in the wee hours of the morning with a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. I couldn’t breathe. Was I having a heart attack? No. Our dog found a comfortable sleeping position on my face, backwards. His scrotum (devoid of their original contents) was comfortably resting within my left eye socket, his penis (flaccid, thankfully) laying across the bridge of my nose, and his chocolate starfish stuck to my forehead. I did what any reasonable person would do at 3 a.m. I threw him across the room, where he hit the wall, and then found another place to sleep, far away from my face. But I’m still being accused of domestic violence on canines. Thankfully, we live in Mexico and these types of criminal complaints are not high on the priority list of local police.

lumberjack

  1. Lumberjack. I’m not a tree-hugger. But stop killing trees. Granted, they’re not great conversationalists, but they do absorb our carbon dioxide and give us oxygen. Occasionally they fall on us and crush us, but apparently without felonious intent. And their wood makes horrible building material. It rots and needs to be constantly replaced. Like fat people at IHOP on Sunday mornings, termites find wood delicious. Is there some shortage of concrete in the world? Where I live, houses are made of concrete, rebar and brick. Good stuff – sturdy, inorganic and plentiful. No other useful purpose, really. Gets stronger with time. Yet in America, we continue building with cotton candy and fussing about our leaky roofs. Get over it. Get some concrete and rebar and build a house that will last a thousand years.

fashionista

3. Fashionista. I get some things about fashion. Don’t wear white after Labor Day (or is it before? Or is it Memorial Day? I could Google it, but I can’t seem to care enough to make the effort). Pony tails on men with male pattern baldness look stupid. Sporting your pajamas in Wal-Mart probably isn’t great. If you’ve got a fat ass, you might want to avoid stretch pants (unless it’s one of those Brazilian butts ─ fat, but in a good way). If gravity is winning the war on your boobs, a bra is probably not a bad idea. If you’re a business professional, a stifling, uncomfortable suit and tie is inferior to a loose blazer and a t-shirt, but baggy cargo shorts and a puke-stained wife-beater might be under-doing it a bit. Steve Jobs got it about right: comfortable jeans and a black shirt. Neither too pompous nor too avant-garde. But where fashion becomes art is I lose it. Did anyone watch New York Fashion Week last year? WTF? Bone-bags on the runway wearing the most bizarre shit I’ve ever seen; flopping off the stage like so much wind-blown litter, either from anemia or ill-fitting high heels. No one would dare wear that shit on the street for fear of public ridicule and spontaneous laughter ─ not just a role of the eyes, I’m talking side-splitting, eye-watering, spittle-flecked eyeglasses type of laughter. Maybe it’s just a blind spot I have with high fashion. But I still wouldn’t risk it. You’ll have to be constantly explaining to people what the color puce actually is, and debating with the seriousness of thought akin to opposing anthropologists, such things as the best belt lines and shoe types for summer. Spend your life doing that if you like.

preacher

2. Theologians and preachers. I group these two together, but for different reasons. Let’s start with theologians. Universities employ them. They’re listened to on talk shows. They’re deferred to by politicians and pundits. They’re also full of shit. The most common response to a difficult moral problem like, “Should apostates be killed?” is “I’m not a theologian.” Well, a literate person doesn’t really have to be an expert on theology to be able to read and interpret religious texts written by semi-literate Bronze Age cave dwellers. God could have, of course, told us how to pasteurize eggs, the germ theory of disease, that our appendix are useless vestiges of evolution (for which he also owes us a long-overdue apology) and how to fix them when they burst, but he instead gave us more useful information, such as how to properly sacrifice a goat, and avoid eating ham (the latter apparently displeases him greatly). But killing our adult male enemies and reserving their virgins as sex slaves? That’s cool. My 9 year old daughter recently asked me to tell her the story of Noah’s Ark. On one of her trips to Catholic Sunday school with my mother in law, she’d heard something about this. So I told the story, without criticism, without laughing (okay, I chuckled a couple of times). To my surprise and infinite delight, she had some questions. Like, “How did the Koalas from Australia get all the way to Mesopotamia – I don’t think they can swim.” (Thank you Discovery Channel.) But even more poignantly, “Did god drown babies too?” Yup. “Did no one else have a boat?” Apparently not. “Hmm,” She said. “I’m going to have to think about that,” before turning her attention back to her newest doll, a “Neonatal” named “Cocada.” I’m lobbying her to be awarded an honorary PhD from Harvard Divinity School. These least interesting religious authorities are the ones that try to square the circle, equivocate, overuse casuistry, and lend credence to alternative interpretations of obvious literal religious texts by employing the tools of parable, metaphor and allegory. While being a theologian might be an interesting profession, it requires seriously strenuous mental gymnastics, and it doesn’t even pay all that well.

Evangelical preachers, however, can make some serious bank by selling something that doesn’t even exist. Now that takes talent. But consider something first. What if you accidentally get it right and your particular religious truth (thousands to choose from) is exactly the one god likes? You’ll be bound to spend eternity in heaven with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Adolph Hitler, and Jesus (an annoying pseudo-hippy philosopher wearing Birkenstocks and casting demons into pigs for fun) ─ the boss’s son is always the worst. And you know what? Anthropologists tell us that Jesus was probably about five feet tall, dark skinned and clean shaven, just like your gardener with the same name. No, no. I’m all-in for hell, for boiling in fiery excrement forever with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens. Much better company, if you ask me.

nutritionist

  1. Nutritionist. Why are you fat and have heart disease? This just in to the newsroom: you eat too much. Once eggs were the culprit. (Try to find an LA restaurant serving omelets with yolks in the 90’s.) Then saturated animal fat became the boogey man.  Turns out now they’re okay now. Protein is now the greatest evil, but vegans die with the same frequency and have the same life expectancy of Paleo activists. Margarine, it now turns out, is worse than butter. Avocados, we’re told, once the anathema of healthy eating, are actually good for you. The Mediterranean diet? Piffle. Coffee causes heart disease and cancer? Nope, it’s actually really good for your liver, among other things. Salt bad for you? Not at all. We now know that the increase in blood pressure from excess salt intake gives an almost infinitesimally small result. Some things are still apparently bad for us, like bacon and sugar, but you can’t have it all. Breakfast is the most important meal, and will increase your metabolism throughout the day? Bullshit. Why have the food sciences gotten things so wrong on so many levels over the years? One possible answer is that journalists have sensationalized scientific studies which may only point to weak correlations between some foods and health ─ they get paid to write headlines, after all. Or it could be that many studies link ill health with certain foods, without providing good causal links, which get debunked in further more thorough studies with wider control groups. Or my theory: there’s not much money in telling people the simple truth. Eat what you like, but less of it. There seems to be a growing body of evidence that this is the answer. But, it’s much more profitable to keep people on fad diet after fad diet, to promote new “super foods”, to extoll the virtues of whatever low fat commodity your industry needs to boost revenue. “Big Food” has more influence on U.S. dietary guidelines than one might think. Of course the health supplement industry is the worst of the worst at charlatanry. It turns out that chewable vitamins are about as effective as chewing on the gangrenous rectal warts of a homeless man. And just as pleasant.

So get on with life and avoid the above. Follow your passions and your intellectual curiosity. Be the best at something, or if not the best, just good, or if not good, well, just don’t suck. The money will follow, and even if it doesn’t you’ll have a better and more fulfilling life than if you simply choose a career based solely on employment trends.

 

© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson.

[1] According to an Oxford University study, 47 percent of all jobs will be taken over by thinking machines by 2034, including the following professions and trades: bakers, journalists, drivers, farm workers, paralegals, pharmacy workers, some medical workers and technicians, real estate agents, airport security and customs officers, and airline pilots.