IS RISE OF THE ROBOTS BENEFICIAL TO THE WEST?

Wall Street Journal on May 15, 2015, published a review of an interesting new book on intelligent machines. Should you be worried by the emergence of intelligent machines? The question is asked by futurist Martin Ford in “The Rise of the Robots”, Basic, 334 pages. Excerpts below:

“No one doubts that technology has the power to devastate entire industries and upend specific sectors of the economy and job market,” writes Mr. Ford, a Silicon Valley software developer turned futurist. Will machine intelligence, tackling tasks once thought of as humanity’s exclusive preserve, “disrupt our entire system to the point where a fundamental restructuring may be required if prosperity is to continue?”

Mr. Ford invokes Norbert Wiener, who in 1949 prophesied an “industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty” in which machines would outstrip humans in routine work “at any price.” In Mr. Ford’s view, just such a revolution is under way in blue-collar work. Robots are ousting low-skilled workers everywhere, from fast-food joints to factory floors—a trend that Mr. Ford argues is central to the puzzling “jobless recovery” of the past decade as well as to other anomalous trends in pay and employment.

We are still a long way from all-round human intelligence—smart machines are becoming more flexible but still tend to excel in only a specific area—but Mr. Ford lucidly sets out myriad examples of how focused applications of versatile machines (coupled with human helpers where necessary) could displace or de-skill many jobs. If you are of the professional classes, you will likely read with mounting dismay Mr. Ford’s compelling explanation of how tools that encapsulate “analytic intelligence and institutional knowledge” will enable less qualified rivals to carry out your job proficiently, quite possibly from another country. An intelligent system might mine huge corporate data sets to distill years of experience into simple instructions for an overseas worker—who can then use translation and telepresence to overcome linguistic and geographical barriers. When the tools systems have become smart enough, those offshore workers may in turn be deemed surplus: In a particularly dastardly move, computers may even acquire those smarts by spying on their human users.

The author is persuasive in his discussion of the business logic that makes this process seem all but inevitable. Machines may be less accomplished than humans, but they are often cheaper, more dependable and more docile.

We should always be skeptical about the difficulty of transferring polished theories into unruly reality. And for the moment, there will remain bastions of human exceptionalism. One recent analysis suggests that “highly creative” work (including architecture, design and entertainment), which accounts for around a fifth of U.S. jobs, will prove intransigent. Mr. Ford also dedicates chapters to the ways in which the health-care and educational sectors have resisted automation.

The author’s apparent reluctance to engage with technological solutions to a technological problem perhaps reveals where his true object lies. His answer to a sharp decline in employment is a guaranteed basic income, a safety net that he suggests would both cushion the effect on the newly unemployable and encourage entrepreneurship among those creative enough to make a new way for themselves. This is a drastic prescription for the ills of modern industrialization—ills whose severity and very existence are hotly contested. “Rise of the Robots” provides a compelling case that they are real, even if its more dire predictions are harder to accept.

The reviewer is Mr. Paul-Choudhury, the editor of New Scientist.

Comment: The robots may be of importance to Western civilization in the future, which obviously has a demographic problem. So have China and the Arab world. The popular scare version is that the robots may take over the world. From the beginning of the 20the century there has been a “dissemination of industry” according to the German civilizationist Oswald Spengler. It is good for industry but there is a problem. It gives what British macrohistorian called the “external proletariat” the opportunity to challenge Western civilization.

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