Many of us smiled excitedly watching exotic prototype robots perform what we still call “human tasks.” It can be as simple as preparing a cup of coffee or as complicated as really sophisticated machinery. As we move into the future, will our smiles persist? That is unknown, but the agitation from rapid, often greed-driven jumps in artificial intelligence makes sense like it never has before.
AI is sweeping the corporate world. By the end of March, tens of employees at the Tokyo-based Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance will be made redundant after they are replaced with an IBM AI system designed to “increase productivity and return on investment.” Wealthy executives of Carl’s Jr. and Wendy’s, two fast-food chains that run thousands of restaurants worldwide, were angered by the rising cost of the minimum wage and decided to take similar steps. Uber started a pilot program in September deploying self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, which could jeopardize the livelihoods of more than 1 million drivers already working as independent contractors worldwide.
Deployments of AI in the workplace so far have had two striking commonalities: laying off a significant share of the human workforce and a declared motivation of increasing profit more and more. But The Economist’s deputy editor, Tom Standage, still can’t find any signs of mass unemployment resulting from such moves. He further adds that AI would help humans shift from routine to nonroutine tasks. What nonroutine tasks? Standage suggests two: bot-wrangling — maintaining the robots — and virtual fashion designers. Bot-wrangling? A nonroutine job indeed.
Novel technological advancements have always been accompanied by new challenges; no new news here. But here lie crucial questions: what makes progress “progress”? And what are the factors that would make certain scientific breakthroughs irritate some scientists?
The predominant philosophy behind technological advancements during the last several decades has been either lacking or disoriented. Equally important, the economic framework hosting many of these advancements provided a fertile soil for that disorientation. As a computational science student who works in AI every day, I am not a neo-Luddite but a firm believer in the indispensability of scientific progression. Whether it is a mini robotic implant to prevent heart failure or Siri setting a morning alarm, technology is meant to bring convenience and universal benefit. But various leading forces behind technological developments have placed profit, and often profit only, first.
As scientists, we have lessons to learn from history before getting into our labs. Several Manhattan Project scientists wrestled with remorse after they succumbed to their contemporary surrounding frameworks and overlooked, or didn’t discern, the catastrophic consequences of pushing the nuclear project forward. Contemporary scientists should not step on the same rake and obliviously push AI in the wrong direction. At the end of the day, scientific breakthroughs that lack a keen underlying philosophy would lead to misplaced ends.
Economically, technology has catalyzed widening the gap between rich and poor. While information sharing has become easier, the predominant conception that was ingrained in us during (the very, very liberal arts) college years of how technology would narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots is highly questionable. Oxfam reports earlier this month that eight of the wealthiest individuals in the world, five of whom head tech-related corporations, garnered wealth as much as half the human race. Gentrification in Silicon Valley ranks among the top in the United States. Amnesty suggests that a number of tech giants, including $605 billion Apple, profit massively from child labor in cobalt mines of Congo. And the list of offenses goes on. Expecting that advancements in a lucrative field such as AI, funneled through the same channels and driven by the same economic principles would move in a different direction is nothing less than ludicrous.
Moley Robotics unveiled its robot chef last year and Philippa Oldham of Newsweek predicts that driverless cars are inevitably going to become the future of transportation. Imagine that robots would be managing Commons and driving Yale’s night shuttles in 2025. Our campus won’t only be less diverse, but also bleaker. After all, Yale without its dining hall staff, shuttle drivers and maintenance workers is not Yale. These working men and women would deserve better compensations rather than being replaced by human-made robotic artifacts — if that ever would be an option. Ms. Oldham’s inevitable can be avoidable at Yale and elsewhere; let’s work to make it so.
Hussein Mohsen is a Ph.D. student in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics program. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .