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Are Droids Taking Our Jobs?

September 25, 2012

I firmly believe that the next one hundred years are going to be rough on the human race.  I worry that more and more people are going to be displaced by technology and our society and institutions are not going to adapt quickly enough.  When I mention this to people, they tend to tell me, “Yeah yeah, we’ve heard all of that before.  Humans aren’t going to be displaced by technology.  We’ll move on to doing other things, as we always have.  Humans are indispensable.”   Unfortunately, that’s not what the data show.

As the speaker points out in this talk, our first wave of technology let us move beyond our own muscle power.  We developed steam engines, hydraulics, electricity, and other technologies which allowed us to harness the Earth’s muscle power to achieve our goals.  At this point in history the human population exploded as did our economic progress.  Everything else before this paled in comparison.

I’ve often mentioned that technology has been the greatest factor in human progress.  I came to the exact same conclusions as Andrew McAfee, the TED speaker above.   But we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  What we all need to brace ourselves for is the emulation of thought and reasoning in machines, which is advancing at an exponential pace.  Machines are getting more and more intelligent and are able to do work which only people could do just a few years ago.  McAfee points out that companies are spending record money on hardware, software, and the development of algorithms, but they’re needing less and less workers over time.  We’re moving quickly toward an age of automation.  I wouldn’t be surprised if human workers are largely displaced within my own lifetime, and definitely by the time our grandchildren are old (I’m 29 years old at this time).

I’m both optimistic and uneasy about these developments.  I’m happy that mankind can be free from drudgery and menial work, leaving us free to be creative, have fun, and study the secrets of the universe.   However, I’m worried that our culture isn’t aware of what’s happening and displaced workers are being written off as lazy and unwilling to work.  More and more people are going to fall into poverty and will be needing assistance to survive.  The idea that a person has to work to eat is going to have to leave us at some point, but exactly when is the thorny issue.

Right now, personal robots are a bit clunky, but they’re improving exponentially.

Video games are a perfect example of progress in technology.  Look at the games twenty-five years ago.  You had little pixelated 2D sprites on a screen, grainy and ugly.  Now we have 3D graphics that look almost indistinguishable from reality.  Right now, the robots are like those old 1980s NES games, clunky and slow.  Come back in thirty years and you’re going to see robots which are tens of thousands of times more powerful and intelligent.

The big change is the fact that these robots are building 3D models of the world in their “heads”.  Earlier generations of robots and AI never did this.  These new intelligent machines have camera eyes and touch sensors on their bodies, and they build up a 3D model of the world as they sense it.  They simulate their intentions in a virtual world within their mind, analyzing the consequences of their movements and actions, just like we do.  This is a BIG deal.  These aren’t mindless programmed scripts moving the robot’s arms in pre-programmed movements.  These robots are going into novel environments, building up intricate models of the world, slowly coming to understand how each object behaves, and are planning their actions, executing goals which they came up with themselves.  That’s why it takes so much computer power, and current desktop processors are not up to the task.  It requires too much memory and too many computations.

Computers today just aren’t fast enough to achieve what our brain can do.  The world’s fastest super-computer has the processing power of about two human brains.  These robots have far less computing resources than we humans do.  That’s why they’re so slow.  And because they have limited resources, the computer scientists are limited in which algorithms they can use.  But all of this will be changing.  It won’t be long before a desktop computer has more processing power than a human brain and these robots will be able to do everything we can, and in time, much more.

They will take our jobs and we need to start thinking about it all now.

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