Monday, December 19, 2016

Are We Ready For an AI World?

The other day I was making some hotel reservations, and set them up with two different hotel chains.  One is universally pet-friendly (we often travel with a dog), and you can call the hotel you want to stay at and talk with the desk clerk directly to make your reservation.  The clerk gets into their reservation system and takes your information and usually there's no problem, although if you call at a busy time it can be a little stressful on the clerk. 

The other chain makes all phone reservations through a centralized phone system—if you call the individual motel, the desk clerk transfers you to the same reservation number you can call directly.  Recently this chain transitioned to a computerized voice-recognition system—your voice is unheard by human ears when you dial the number.  It didn't go well.

I suppose those familiar with the robotic phone-tree industry could name the company that makes this system by the way it sounds.  It has a friendly female voice saying, "Okay, what can we do for you?  Tell me if you want to make a reservation," etc.  At first I hoped I'd eventually get to talk with a live human, because my experience with these robot voices has been mixed at best.  Maybe it's my tone of voice, maybe it's my Southern background, but unless the computer is asking for simple yes-or-no answers, I don't have much luck with them. 

It asked me for the place I wanted to stay and what day and how many nights.  I tried to tell it—twice, in fact—but all I got back was this peculiar fast clicking ("pip-pop-pip-pop") which I have to believe is what the system puts on the line instead of Muzak while it's trying to puzzle out what you said, and then it asked the same question all over again.  Finally I hung up and used the chain's website to make the reservation, which may be what they want people to do anyway—I'm sure it's a lot less trouble to them than their robot telephone operators. 

This is an up-close and personal encounter with something that is only going to get worse—or better, depending on your point of view—in the future.  I'm talking about the replacement of people with technology in a wide variety of jobs.  In a recent issue of The New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a number of books concerned with the recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), and the effects this is going to have on the the job market, the economy, and society in general. 

This isn't going to happen overnight.  Paradoxically, it's easier to program a computer to diagnose certain types of diseases with expert systems than it is to teach one how to fold towels.  Kolbert cites an experiment at U. C. Berkeley with a robot that learned to fold a towel—after practicing, it got its time down to twenty-five minutes per towel.  In that regard, at least, Rosie the Robot isn't going to replace hotel housemaids any time soon. 

On the other hand, if you work in a phone-answering "boiler room," you have reason to be worried, although my own experience with the robotic reservation clerk shows there is still a place for humans on the other end of the line.  Kolbert classifies jobs into four types:  manual routine jobs (e. g. folding towels or working on an assembly line), cognitive routine jobs (e. g. keeping track of a warehouse inventory), manual nonroutine jobs (e. g. home health care or brain surgery), and cognitive nonroutine jobs (e. g. developing a new AI system).  Both types of routine jobs, where you can basically write an algorithm about what to do in any given situation, are ripest for replacement by robots and AI software.

The fear that humans will lose their jobs to machines goes back at least to the 1700s, when mechanical looms and spinning jennies began to replace weavers and the one-person spinning wheel.  But until recently, industrialization produced at least as many new jobs as the old ones it eliminated, if not more. 

The problem now is that many new firms that attract billions in capital now operate with essentially nobody.  Kolbert cites an extreme example:  the messaging firm Whatsapp, with its fifty-five employees, was bought by Facebook in 2014 for twenty-two billion dollars.  That's four hundred million dollars per employee.  When I told my wife about it, she said, "Well, I hope they didn't lose their jobs when they got bought out."  I hope not either.  Maybe the janitor did, but you can rest assured that some of that twenty-two billion found its way into the pockets of at least a few of those people. 

Leaving lottery-like occurrences aside, the point is that both software-based and manufacturing enterprises are finding ways to do what they need to do with fewer and fewer warm bodies who are not in the upper echelon of the cognitive non-routine class.  The few people they still need—lawyers, managers, creative people, and other "symbolic manipulators," in George Gilder's phrase—may form the future ruling class of what software developer Martin Ford calls "techno-feudalism." 

But even feudal lords needed their serfs to work their lands.  The ruling class of the future will have no need for anyone not in their class, except as consumers.  Most of the authorities Kolbert cites figure that the best we can do with the vast majority of us ordinary mortals who have no aptitude for programming, management, the law, or high finance, is to pension us off with guaranteed incomes, or something that amounts to that, and hope we don't decide to up and storm the castle some day.

Next week I plan to look at an alternate view of the same problem, written during the depths of the Great Depression, but I've run out of space today.  In the meantime, if you have a job, be grateful for it, and share some of what you have with those less fortunate.   

Sources:  Elizabeth Kolbert's piece "Rage Against the Machine:  Will Robots Take Your Job?" begins on p. 114 of the Dec. 19 & 26, 2016 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

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