Along came the Industrial Revolution and all of society changed. Farming became more efficient, it had to, because of all of the former farm boys who were heading to the cities and towns to work in the factories and mills. Rural life grew ever thinner, even as urban areas thickened with more people moving in closer to one another. Ideas of family and community adapted, because they had to. Values, too – money and consumption grew in importance as more people moved to town.
But the net-net for jobs was positive. The Industrial Revolution created more jobs than it destroyed. Some workers lost, others prospered greatly from industrialization, but overall, the changed society was in most ways better. People lived longer, in better health, surrounded by more opportunities for improvement or leisure.
When electricity domesticated industrial-strength power, when computers cascaded annual quantum leaps of information (and disinformation) to almost everyone, the planet-scale result was again, better in many important ways – increasing longevity, new medical treatments and new jobs to replace those that change was making obsolete.
But that was then, and this now. Now, we are entering the world of robots and AI – Artificial Intelligence. From the long perspective of human history, the great physicist Stephen Hawking warned that AI could be “the worst event in the history of our civilization,” while the entrepreneur billionaire Elon Musk says the logical conclusion of AI is an “immortal dictator.”
Even Yoshua Bengio, whose work has enabled innumerable applications of AI “neural networks,” worries about misuse of Artificial Intelligence. He wants an international treaty banning “killer robots” or “lethal autonomous weapons.”
But such weapons are already out, maybe beyond control, on the global arms market, and peacetime uses of robots and Artificial Intelligence could have equally devastating effects on daily life as we know it.
The first place to see the changes is the workplace where many jobs are changing and many are disappearing. And AI, unlike the factory, the power plant, your laptop or smartphone seems to offer few replacement jobs in its wake.
Robots and AI will, again, add years to your life, and rescue you from many medical problems and offer you diversions as delicious and dangerous as a sack of cheeseburgers and a vanilla milkshake. But the AI revolution may require society to redefine the nature and value of employment, government and the distribution of public benefits.
Jeff Bezos is known for turning workers in his Amazon warehouses into living robots, monitoring their output, even their bathroom breaks, on a minute-by-minute, movement-by-movement basis.
But his latest plan for retail convenience stores restricts the living employees to re-stocking the shelves and mopping up spills. Everything else is handled by AI-enabled robotic surveillance cameras, code-readers and computers that clock your every purchase, and charge it to your credit card. Pick up your receipt from the machine on your way out. “Shopping” without having to say hello or goodbye to anyone.
Nigel Cameron writes about technology, society, and the future. In 2007 he founded the Washington think tank The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His most recent book is Will Robots Take Your Job?