Why Robots Are Our Friends, Not Our Foes

Robots! Do they worry you? Are you concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence or automation on your job? Do you believe that your job is probably not as difficult to automate and do, as you think it is. In this post I explain why you shouldn’t get too distressed.

Robots and Car Trouble

Take driverless cars as an example. Do you believe that they will put people out of business? If you do then, in my opinion, you’re wrong. These vehicles may work on motorways, but I doubt they’ll ever be able to cope with congested urban streets. Or even winding, narrow rural lanes. Like many other technological advances, this new innovation will not to push people out of jobs. Rather it will make lives easier by helping drivers rather than replacing them. 

Every wave of automation triggers warnings of mass unemployment which never materialise. In the early 1800s, the Luddites smashed up textile machinery. They done this because they thought automation would affect their job. And today we still worrying about robots. But these fears are unfounded. Each technological advance creates more jobs than it destroys. Yet, there is something distinctive about the threat of today’s automation. This is artificial intelligence (AI), and it lies in what’s known as Moravec’s paradox.

Robots and Moravec’s Paradox

This is the discovery that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires very little computation. But low-level sensorimotor skills need enormous computational resources. Hans Moravec, Rodney Brooks, Marvin Minsky and others articulated this in the 1980s. As Moravec writes:

… it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers. But it is difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.

Similarly, Marvin Minsky emphasized that the most difficult human skills to reverse engineer are those that are unconscious:

In general, we’re least aware of what our minds do best. We’re more aware of simple processes that don’t work well than of complex ones that work flawlessly.

So, robots find the difficult things easy and the easy things difficult. They easily outperform adults in logic. But a one-year-old can out-pace them in the basic functions of perception and mobility. For me, the real risk with increasing reliance on artificial intelligence is not more joblessness, but growing inequality.

Robots and Inequality

Robots mean that the returns to the owners of sophisticated computer capital keep going up and the increasingly deskilled workforce keep going downThis will be especially prevalent for middle-income workers, the ones whose jobs depend on logic and number crunching, who are being displaced and having to take low paid jobs like waiting and bartending.

That explains what has long puzzled economists. More and more jobs are being created, yet wages remain static. For me governments need to intervene. If they don’t then the future economy will be one where a tiny number of rich people employ armies of poor ones to do menial and trivial tasks. Politicians need to make sure that society can share the benefits of automation via a more equal allocation of time. In Britain, the proportion of our lives we spend at work as opposed to sleeping, in education etc. has shrunk. Its fallen from about 25% a hundred years ago, to 10% today. If that percentage falls a bit more thanks to computer-human symbiosis, then everybody can gain.

Do you agree, or disagree? Why not leave a comment below?

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