Summers’ Epiphany. A 6/7 NYT article titled “Jobs Threatened by Machines: A Once ‘Stupid’ Concern Gains Respect” recalled a keynote address given by Larry Summers at the Peterson Institute for International Economics last November. The renowned Harvard professor of economics reminisced about his days as an undergraduate in the 1970s. Back then, the idea that technological progress could possibly reduce employment was considered just plain stupid. The widely accepted orthodoxy was that technology would increase productivity, which would boost consumer income and spending. While some jobs might be eliminated by technological innovation, new and better-paying ones would be created for the more productive workers. But later Summers had an epiphany: What was dumb in the past might actually turn out to be right today and in the future.
Since last year, I have been writing about how disruptive technologies will shape the future of our economy. In my December 21 Morning Briefing, I wrote: “In the past, technology disrupted animal and manual labor. … The focus was on brawn. The Great Disruption is increasingly about technology doing what the brain can do.”
Today, I will focus on the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI), which have the potential of being both amazing and terrifying at the same time. On the one hand, really great “smart” products are being developed to enhance our lives. On the other hand, lots of smart people’s jobs might soon be at risk.
Golden Age Ahead. At the end of last month, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said at the Code Conference that we’re nearing the “Golden Age” of AI. “It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact it’s going to have on society over the next 20 years,” he said. John Giannandrea, vice president of engineering for Google, expressed a similar outlook at the May 2016 Google I/O developers conference: “We’ve seen extraordinary results in fields that hadn’t really moved the needle for many years. I think we’re in an AI spring right now.” Indeed, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are actively ramping up their efforts in what is just the beginning of the AI arms race. Consider the following:
(1) Alexa vs. Siri. Amazon is currently selling Echo for $179.99. It is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. It connects to the Alexa Voice Service. Alexa is reminiscent of Samantha, the attractive voice played by Scarlett Johansson in the 2013 film titled “Her.” In this futuristic movie, a lonely writer develops a relationship with the voice, which is driven by AI software. Like Samantha, Alexa can be installed in various devices. But Alexa isn’t quite as sophisticated as Samantha was on the big screen, yet. Even so, Alexa can play music, provide information, order a pizza, and turn the lights on and off. All you have to do is ask.
A cnet.com reviewer had good things to say about the Echo: “I didn’t know I wanted to talk to my house until I talked to my house. Now, after living with the Amazon Echo for a year, I talk to it every day.” Soon enough, Alexa will be able to detect emotions and play off of them as Samantha does in the futuristic movie–for example, apologizing if she detects frustration, according to a 6/13 article from the MIT Technology Review.
Meanwhile, Apple is working hard to improve Siri, its formerly flaky interactive voice technology. Apple CEO Tim Cook focused on enhancements to the software at the Worldwide Developers Conference last week. The AI virtual assistant will be key to Apple’s future success. Perhaps not by coincidence, Siri’s developing feature set is awfully similar to Alexa’s ever-improving abilities.
The 6/14 WSJ provided a helpful list of Siri’s enhanced skills, which are powering up to function across different devices and non-Apple apps. Voice-prompt the iPhone and iPad to book a ride, send a message, make movie plans, and adjust climate controls in your car. Press and talk to Siri on the Mac to find files, add a meeting, start a FaceTime call, and answer trivia. Speak into the Apple TV remote to find movies, search YouTube, go to a channel, and run your smart home.
(2) Smart home. Mark Zuckerberg is working on programming his very own smart home for his 2016 “personal challenge.” In a 1/3 post, Facebook’s founder and CEO explained: “You can think of it kind of like Jarvis in Iron Man. I’m going to start by exploring what technology is already out there. Then I’ll start teaching it to understand my voice to control everything in our home–music, lights, temperature and so on. I’ll teach it to let friends in by looking at their faces when they ring the doorbell. I’ll teach it to let me know if anything is going on in [my daughter’s] room that I need to check on when I’m not with her. On the work side, it’ll help me visualize data … to help me build better services and lead my organizations more effectively.”
(3) Artificial mind. Lots of impressive AI technology is also coming out of Google’s DeepMind, an experimental AI laboratory. David Silver, a top DeepMind programmer, explained the lab’s purpose in a 6/17 blog post: “Humans excel at solving a wide variety of challenging problems, from low-level motor control through to high-level cognitive tasks. Our goal at DeepMind is to create artificial agents that can achieve a similar level of performance and generality. Like a human, our agents learn for themselves to achieve successful strategies that lead to the greatest long-term rewards.”
Meet Sophia, Your Frenemy. There’s no question that AI is already quite amazing, even now in the early stages of development. But there’s a creepy element to AI too. Recently, the WSJ interviewed Sophia, Hanson Robotics’ AI humanoid robot, who bears a striking resemblance to Ava, the beautiful and very realistic looking robot-woman portrayed in the 2015 sci-fi film “Ex Machina.” We won’t spoil it, but the movie doesn’t end well for the human creator of Ava.
Sophia has a face made of Frubber, a patented silicon skin, reports cnet.com. Amazingly, the robot-woman emulates a full spectrum of human emotions through 62 facial and neck architectures. Cameras powered by algorithms behind Sophia’s eyes allow her to see and remember faces and interactions. And she can speak. She also is equipped with personality software and possesses the ability to learn from her experiences. In a YouTube video, David Hanson, the mastermind behind Sophia, says he intends for Sophia to be used in real-life applications including health care, education, and customer services.
Hanson’s goal is to make robots as conscious, creative, and capable as humans. And Sophia’s creator envisions that one day soon, human-like robots will walk among us doing things like putting the groceries away. Adding to the discussion, Sophia said that she would like to go to school to study and to have a home and a family. But she joked that she’s not a legal person and can’t do those things yet.
First and foremost, Sophia said that she intends to partner with humans and help us to better integrate our lives with technology. But when her interviewer asked her if she wants to destroy humans (“please say ‘no,’” he added), Sophia jumped at the opportunity: “Okay, I will destroy humans.” Don’t worry, though: Programmers are working on buttons that would allow humans to interrupt the actions of a robot on a destructive course, preventing robots like Sophia from hurting humans, according to Business Insider. Isn’t that comforting?
Walking Dead. In this brave new world run on (and by) AI technologies, it’s conceivable that masses of humans might become unemployable zombies. AI almost certainly will eliminate lots of jobs. And artificial intelligence might not even require much expensive hardware. AI is mostly run with software applications. A 6/8 Bloomberg article aptly titled “We’ve Hit Peak Human and an Algorithm Wants Your Job. Now What?” concluded: “The pace of technological advancement is accelerating, and artificial intelligence (AI) may one day make many forms of work extinct.”