Brodie Farquhar: Future of artificial intelligence is unsettling |

Brodie Farquhar: Future of artificial intelligence is unsettling

A recent column by Maureen Dowd, columnist for the New York Times, was carried last week in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. It was an insightful thought piece about the dangers of social media and artificial intelligence, or AI.

I would like to focus on AI, since the story is still unfolding how Facebook was used by Russian intelligence to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election.

AI is the idea that computers, with ever-growing memory, speed and power, is rapidly moving toward the moment that a computer becomes self-aware and smarter than humans. At that moment, the game of who/what is the dominant species on Earth, is changed. That initial AI, which becomes conscious, is then in a position to help itself and other computers become even more self-aware and intelligent.

I realize that this sounds like the premise of science fiction films and literature, and that’s true. The "Terminator" movie series was based on that premise, leading to a war between humans and AI computers/robots.

Robert Heinlein’s "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," starts with a super-computer that wakes-up, makes human friends and leads a revolution of lunar settlers against Earth, to avoid an ecological disaster. Isaac Asimov’s "I, Robot," enunciated three laws that robots must follow, to avoid conflict and keep robots in service to humans, rather than as competitors.

The reality is that computers, robots and AI are already emerging as competitors to humans, to our detriment. Of all the manufacturing jobs that have been lost, how many have been lost to robots and automation, versus Third World countries and humans willing to work for lower wages and fewer benefits?

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Quite aside from dystopian futures like the "Terminator" series, the future of automation, robotics, AI, Big Data and algorithms is unsettling. Manufacturing jobs have been under assault, and that will continue. Retail and construction jobs are at risk, as are professions in law and medicine. If AI can access millions of law and medical cases and correlate same to individual clients and patients, then human lawyers and doctors can be replaced in the future.

A 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, predicts that 47 percent of American jobs were at high risk of being "substituted by computer capital."

I take scant comfort from Polly-Anna economists who minimize potential pain and dislocation from job loss to computers, because people will just find new jobs. Really?

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th to 20th centuries changed the world, and the dislocation included two world wars and two Communist revolutions that killed hundreds of millions of people.

The driver for all this change, of course, is efficiency. Robots and AI don’t take bathroom or lunch breaks. They don’t call in sick or report to work hung-over. They don’t strike for pay or benefits. They aren’t human or creative.

But other than the goal of ever-growing profits for the few, how are all these trends benefiting society at large? What are we to do for our livelihoods? What kind of lives will our children and grandchildren have?

As fast as computers and AI are changing, we humans are way behind the curve in understanding the implications or setting limits on these changes. Maybe we should get ahead for a change.


Brodie Farquhar




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