Robots Coming, Disruption Ahead

The march of the robots – Artificial Intelligence – into all aspects of society is under way. Robots are nondescript, intelligent machines programmed to mimic, and even surpass, the human capacity to recognize patterns and perform tasks. They do so by rapidly processing massive amounts of data as well as reading instant feedback from sensors, such as those that guide self-driving cars.

The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post, has provided a look into the impact of AI, an impact already being felt in nearly every realm, from how we manufacture things and make a living, to the quality of our lives as we age. Advances in artificial intelligence are redefining warfare and reconfiguring the geopolitical balance.

The challenge is making smart policy choices that realize the promises of AI while containing the perils. Eliminating the drudgery of routine labor and enhancing energy efficiency in a warming climate are surely triumphs for humankind. The dissolution of privacy as individuals lose control over their personal information not so much.

The founding president of Google China, Kai-Fu Lee, dispels the idea that universal basic income, or UBI, is an optimal solution to the massive job displacement that the AI revolution is expected to unleash.

Kai-Fu heads the AI institute at the venture capital firm Sinovation Ventures. He says “Roughly half of all jobs will disappear in the next decade.” When robots and AI inevitably take over, he says, we cannot naively assume a government stipend alone “will be a catalyst for people to reinvent themselves professionally.” In order to truly turn this technological revolution into “a creative renaissance,” he writes from Beijing, we will instead need to capitalize on the human touch and focus on people-to-people interaction, because ultimately “only humans can create and come up with new innovations. AI…cannot think outside the box, and it can only optimize problems defined by humans.” Societies will have to bend to the new realities not only with a basic guarantee of subsistence, he says, but also with a new definition of the work ethic and a new valuation of social labor, such as elder care.

John Markoff  worries that there won’t be enough humans to handle elder care and sees the elderly as the next frontier for AI. “Globally, the number of people over 80 will double by the middle of the century – almost half a billion people will fall into the neediest care category – and that percentage will increase by sevenfold by the end of this century,” he writes. “The dependency ratio – that proportion of humans who require care compared to those who can give care – is also increasing inexorably.”

Japan is leading the way in robots for elder care, Markoff says. Other aging nations, including China – a byproduct of decades of a now-abandoned one-child policy – as well as Europe and the U.S., lag behind and will inevitably have to follow suit, he says. For now, he says, as roboticist Rodney Brooks has suggested, “self-driving cars will be the first elder-care robots,” enabling old people to maintain their mobility when acute awareness of their surroundings and reaction time diminishes. Sensors that can track when an elderly person needs medical assistance are not far behind, followed by what Markoff calls “machines of loving grace” that will offer companionship for the old and isolated.

As with all great transformations, there is a geopolitical dimension as well. Whoever dominates AI, especially its military and security applications, will put their stamp on the world order. America has long held the delusion that it has a permanent advantage in leading technological innovation. But Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, says he expects China will surpass Silicon Valley in artificial intelligence advances in about a year.

Edward Tse explains why. “While so much of the world today lacks clear direction,” Tse writes from Shanghai, “China has an edge in its ability to combine strong, top-down government directive with vibrant grass-roots-level innovation. Beyond this, China has an abundance of data to train AI-learning algorithms because of its huge population of Internet users – more than 700 million. China’s thriving mobile Internet ecosystem also provides a test bed for AI researchers to collect and analyze valuable demographics and transactional and behavioral big data and to conduct large-scale experiments at a much higher level than foreign counterparts.”

Beware to the winner. Big data analysis through the prowess of intelligent machines introduces a host of threats – not least of which is the unsettling reality that where there is connectivity, there is also surveillance. The more we know or learn though connected networks, the more that is known and learned about us. The communication technologies we use today are invasive by design, collecting our photos, comments and friends in giant searchable databases. In the West, private companies intrude on privacy to monetize personal data. In China, the security state is well on its way to becoming an all-seeing Big Brother.

Technological change would not gain momentum if it was not in some way responsive to the demands of society. In the end, who defines those needs and desires will determine whether fulfilling them is good or bad for society as a whole. For now, unless or until they acquire “general intelligence,” robots and AI remain bound to the humans who design them.