Automation and the coming productization of humanity

As I sit here writing these words, I have myriad tools at my disposal. I have automatic spell check, I have formatting tools, grammar checks, I can easily bold or underline with the touch of a key. Tools that publishers even 30 years ago would have killed for.

But I have more.

FROM 30 YEARS TO 10 MINUTES
I also have the ability to search for almost anything. I can type a few words into Google and find the prices of whale oil in the 19th century.

Just think about that for a second. Within the span of about 30 years we took a process that would involve me doing days of research in a library, then hours of editing and writing, submitting the documentation, editing it again, sending it to press, putting it out for delivery and getting it into your hands… to a process that takes a few minutes.

That is staggering progress.

CREATIVITY IS SAFE… OR IS IT?
But it’s just the beginning.

Companies like Automated Insights promise to push the envelope such that most articles don’t even need the human to do any of the work. Actually, this is already happening, if you Google “This story was generated by automated insights” you will find press releases like this one which were done completely without human interaction.

Ok… you might not be impressed because obviously creativity is well off in the future. If you think so read this poem and be honest about how easily you can tell it was written by AI.

Flow Machines is a project which is attempting to have AI compose music. I think this area still needs a lot of advancement and the criticism is that all it REALLY does is look at millions of different types of music to look for certain patterns, then puts them into different combinations and tries to find ones that seem to “work.” But really… if we look at the evolution of classical music from Bach to Rachmaninoff, aren’t they more or less doing the same thing? Borrowing from previous structures, weaving in the local folk tunes and then discovering new forms that seem to resonate in our minds when we hear them? They just do it slowly and clumsily and we like to think of that pain as being critical to the process… well… maybe it is, maybe not.

WHERE TO?
I think all this stuff is neat and it makes for interesting headlines, but where is it going?

To answer that question I want to take us back many thousands of years to when humans were first getting started.

Imagine a time when the sky was pitch black at night and the eerie animal sounds echoing in the blackness mixed and mingled with our minds to create the early myths and dreams. During the day we would have to spend nearly all our energy on survival. We had to hunt by hand, tear apart the meat, create the fire, cook the meat and eat it. We had to pick the berries and the fruit (after finding or growing it). We had to till the soil, find and carry the water, build the shelters… all by hand. The work was relentless and the prospects for survival were dubious.

Over time we learned that some of this work could be improved by making use of technology. We learned that some animals could be tamed, we learned that round trees could be used to make moving heavy stone easier. We built aqueducts to carry our water in and sewers to carry our waste out. We learned about boiling water to kill germs and we learned that the cure for bacteria was mold.

Up until very recently the advances in technology have been our aids. Our relationship with technology was primarily the technology doing and us telling… doing it better, cheaper, safer, faster.

What we have today is a bit different.

DRIVING
When I step into my car and go somewhere the first thing I do is type the address into my GPS. The car (or phone) usually quickly tells me the directions that I should follow to go there. In essence the relationship is that the car is telling ME what to do and I am merely the executor of it’s commands. Now you might say… “BS Hermann, YOU told it where YOU wanted to go.”

But did I? If I want to figure out WHERE I want to go, how do I do that? Well, I once again go to Google and type in something like “indoor activities for children” click on maps and boom; a bunch of things to choose from. I could say that *I* originally decided that indoor children’s activities is what *I* wanted to do and that was the real active choice… the rest was the computer passively aiding me… but I’m not so sure our relationship with technology is so clear cut.

My choices are shaped by technology to an alarming degree. With a bit of information about my tastes and preferences AI can predict which things I like and dislike. Indeed this is the basis behind most of the consumption technologies in the world today. Removing human biases from the evaluation process proves to improve the predictive results of what people will “like.”

AI SAYS – YOU DO
I believe this will be an underlying trend over the next few decades. The new advances in mechanization will be computers telling us what to do and we will take on the roles of executors. I think stories like Watson diagnosing cancer in a particular case in Japan better than doctors; will become more frequent.

It’s worth digging in a bit here to understand WHY Watson was able to do this.

Diagnosing cancer is a very complex problem. Symptoms can look like other diseases, the patient’s genetics and history are significant, similar cases can be helpful in finding patters and the amount of data coming from research is staggering. It’s impossible for a human to have all that information in their minds and then process it in an efficient way. Previously AI would “brute force” it’s way to finding solutions to puzzles with known complexity.

Watson and the new AI technology is doing something very different. It is able to learn how to pattern match based on looking at millions of units of information across different dimensions and then figuring out which answer has the highest probability of being correct. It can then have that probability tested in the real world and generate data that it can use to improve it’s diagnosis in the future. This is what human oncologists do… but they are much slower and less accurate. Of course, humans are creative and have “instincts” and can thus short cut many potential possibilities that are “silly.” But Watson and AI like it can learn those as well… without having the biases and emotional limitations. They don’t need sleep or get hungry or have arguments with their spouses. Of course, they probably COULD if that helped improve diagnostic outcomes.

If you think this is limited to using the past to understand the present… that is only the beginning. Back in 2009, an AI system use basic math and huge data sets to “discover” the laws of motion.T

oday, there is lots of research into prediction. For example, this AI tries to generate video that will predict what happens next. In this system there is a so called “adversarial” process in place. One AI attempts to predict what will happen and the other tries to determine if it looks real or fake. By taking data of what really happened both the prediction AI and the evaluation AI can improve their accuracy… all without any human intervention.

FAST FORWARD
Let’s really stretch possibilities here for a second.
With this kind of massive data set, adversarial networks, random tinkering, complete spectrum analysis (remember, AI can see EVERYTHING not just the limited colors we can see) what is possible?

Well… maybe AI can discover a cure for diseases. By having access to humans to experiment on, past data about a disease and access to unlimited chemicals to mix and match; it’s entirely possible.

AI could discover new recipes. By mixing all the possible ingredients and comparing that against data sets of what flavors come from where, what mixes are preferred and how they interact; AI could one day generate recipes… oh wait… that already happened, you can pick it up on Amazon here.

Perhaps AI could create the next breakthrough in computers. Or figure out how to make our screens bigger, more flexible, more durable.

Maybe it could help us figure out how to explore space or break through the speed of light.

Who knows.

BUT WHAT ABOUT ME?
Indeed, when compared to creating a new digital device or breaking Einstein’s laws of physics, writing this article seems trivial. It seems to me that in the coming decades there may be little work in content creation by humans. Perhaps I would need to create a theme or a series of interests so that the AI has something to start with, but I can imagine it might be able to generate those on it’s own as well.

What *I* have to do is consume the content and render my verdict. Do I “like” it or “ignore” it. Based on the the AI can learn what humans like me enjoy and what we don’t. But really… that’s kind of what Bloggers do today anyway… just much more slowly and less accurately.

The role of humans in the centuries to come may very well be consumers and products. In order for AI to advance it needs to have an external reality to bounce things off. That is, until it figures out that improving lives of humans might not be the best goal. As long as AI is focused on making our lives, better, easier, faster, safer… I can imagine a world where humans are essentially products which AI producers trade and compete for. We would basically be real world sims.

If AI eventually correctly interprets evolutionary history, it’s entirely possible it will quite rationally conclude that humans are just another species in the long chain of life over the years. While the extinction of Dinosaurs was a boon for Mammals, I’m not sure the Dinosaurs saw things the same way. Perhaps AI spending all of the worlds resources to keep humans satisfied and safe will act as a limitation on evolution. The next logical step is to just get rid of that problem altogether… in the same way that we have wiped out many species that got in our way.

It’s a scary thought, and not as far off in terms of science fiction as we would like to think. We always like to imagine the future in terms of how *WE* will be part of it, but it’s equally, or perhaps more, likely that the future will be without us at all.

*This article was not generated by AI, yet….*

What Happened to Coal?

Summary

  • The coal industry in the US has been on a downward trajectory since about 1970s.
  • Despite what is reported this is not primarily because of environmental regulations.
  • It’s also not because people are embracing alternative energy.
A brief history of US Energy.

The last 100 year history of US energy is a fascinating story… at least to me. But I’m primarily interested because I see the disturbing headlines of town and counties in part of our country: high rates of unemployment, rising poverty and the associated crime and drug use that goes with it. Along with those headlines is the narrative of industries, like coal, shrinking and dying and the finger pointing… primarily at environmental regulations and subsidies being showered on environmentally friendly energy sources, specifically solar and wind
The conflict is often positioned as a fight between jobs and environment; as if environmental industries somehow don’t employ people.

The reality is completely different and it’s well summarized by this graph anyone can go find on the energy information agency’s website.



What has happened to coal over the past 100 years is very clear. It was first replaced by petroleum (1908-1950) and then later by natural gas (1950 – 1990 and then really accelerating after hydraulic fracturing made extracting natural gas much more affordable).
In the grand scheme of the American energy landscape, “other renewables” is barely a blip on the radar.
So from a policy perspective if you just eliminated ALL renewables, rolled back hydroelectric and banned biomass and you somehow prevented petroleum and natural gas from increasing market share, the actual improvement to caol would be less than 10% of the total energy pie. that would make 2016 look roughly like 1997 from a market share perspective.
THERE IS NO WAY BACK
The heady days of America being a primarily coal driven energy country are gone… over… forever. Unless you want to ban petroleum and natural gas as sources of power, forget it.
So when politicians talk about putting money into coal, it’s incredibly financially irresponsible as well as being cruel and dishonest to the people who work in that industry.
WHAT ABOUT EXPORTING
One other area that is discussed is exporting it. Sure, America is moving away from coal in what looks like a long term and permanent way, but what about other developing countries that need cheap, efficient energy?
Well, the obvious players here are China and India. For many years China did have a strong appetite for coal, but that peaked in 2013 and has gone down ever since.
And who can blame the Chinese. Their air quality is so poor they have to essentially close down cities. Do we really want to believe that significant investment in coal plants in the US today will translate into coal sales in China tomorrow? No way in hell.

What about India? Well, while that is a possible market, it turns out India has a lot of it’s own coal it can mine. And guess what… Indian miners earn a lot less than US miners. So unless the future of US coal is somehow extracting the coal for less than they can do it in India (including shipping costs and potential import taxes) there’s no future there either.

CAVEAT
I will say this. It’s POSSIBLE that some kind of new use for coal is discovered that previously doesn’t exist and can’t be predicted. It’s also possible that we run out of natural gas or petroleum before those sources are replaced and the reliance on coal comes back.

That sounds far fetched, but consider two examples from history.

Standard Oil’s primary product was kerosene for lighting households. That market was crushed by electricity as it became available which forced them to pivot to gasoline. Before the automobile gasoline was a dangerous byproduct that was considered worthless.

Similarly, during the early days of whaling, it was only the whale oil that was extracted, the bone was thrown away. It wasn’t until bone was used for making things similar to the way plastic is used today that it became valuable.

So there are examples from history where things that look like they are dying find a second life because of new uses. But those things don’t require intervention… the market tends to discover them.

WHAT ABOUT THOSE MINERS?
This is the really nasty issue. I’ve commented a lot about basic income and I still think this is a potentially good idea, but it’s also long term and doesn’t help people today.

There are longer term ideas, like investing in high energy wind farms in Western Kentucky. Those also required skill workers for both construction and maintenance and Western Kentucky has a combination of moderate the high winds as well as lots of land. It’s also a lot healthier to work on a wind turbine than in a coal mine, and the clean up costs are not quite as high. The problem, of course, is that wind isn’t all that efficient today so the economics don’t make sense…. but hey… the economics for coal don’t make sense either so if we’re going to subsidize maybe it should be in something future looking?

Another possibility is to focus on natural gas production in Kentucky. The major problem with this is that other sources are much cheaper to develop and extract.

The state itself also should look for future investments in high tech industry generally. Somewhat more outlandish thing like Pittsburg’s focus on self driving cars. The city essentially restructuring itself from steel to technology.

Right now Kentucky gets 85% of it’s energy from coal vs. the national average of 32%. I suspect this is because the industry has a lot of power and is desperately trying to cling to the past at the cost of the current and future people of the state.

I’m not picking on Kentucky. It’s a beautiful state with vast resources and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. It’s not fair that hard working people who spent decades of their lives doing back breaking work in dangerous conditions get the shaft because of long term economic trends beyond their control. It’s just as bad that they are being lied to and given false hope so that a small number of people can extract the last pound of flesh for their own enrichment.

I believe the way our of these situation is a combination of building for the future while exercising some compassion and care for people when they become victims of circumstances beyond their control. I actually think it’s entirely valid to declare a state of emergency in cases like this and treat the people in these areas the way we would people caught in hurricanes or massive fires. While those are “naturally occurring” disasters, they are just as devastating and just as difficult to control at the individual level.

Why the Tesla Model X changes cars forever.

Obviously I’m biased.

I picked up my Model X about a week ago and it’s been an impressive experience so far.

There’s lots of reviews out there and most of them are from enthusiasts who have mostly minor, though some major, complaints… but overall think the car is the most amazing thing ever.

I’m one of those people, but for slightly different reasons.

WHAT MAKES THE MODEL X SO GREAT


I’m not going to talk about how falcon wing doors make putting kids in and out of the car super easy.
I’m not going to talk about how the car has insane speed, handling, acceleration, etc. to the point where you can blow away Ferraris on your way to picking your kids up at school.
I’m not going to talk about how the interface and design of the car are on par with anything Apple has done.
I’m not even going to talk about how it’s an EV and therefore sets up the possibility for being completely 0-carbon footprint (with the exception of the materials used to make the car, of course).

OK, SO WHAT THEN

#1: The Model X is a Platform
A brother-in-law of mine put it perfectly. He commented that Tesla has created a PLATFORM and not just a car. Unlike any other car (except the S) the Model X can be constantly updated. And it is. Regular software updates add significant functionality. I’m relatively sure that I will be able to use my Model X to drive completely automatically in the next few years. I won’t need to buy a new car or get a bunch of hardware… it’ll happen through software only, at night, while I’m sleeping in my bed.
Things like safety improvements, preferences, driving quality, even engine and battery performance can be improved via software updates. I suspect that some things WILL require hardware updates, but I bet that the same car I have out in my garage today can be continuously improved and tweaked for many, many years; providing me with huge value.
No other car has ever done that, or even tried.
#2: Crowdsourced Energy
I happen to be in a bit of an outside EV area right now (Inland Empire) and the nearest supercharger is about 40 miles away. I also am staying at my in-laws and thus don’t have a high speed charger at home. If you use PlugShare, it has a feature that lets you search for individuals who share their chargers with people. Some of them charge, most of them don’t. Many people bring a bottle of wine or case of beer to share while waiting for a charge. There are numerous stories about people being in a strange town, unable to find a commercial charger and they share a charge with a stranger.
I think this is awesome and is a completely different way of thinking about how we power our transportation. I can easily see an AirBnB type situation popping up where there is no need for huge “electric” stations and instead people just rent out their chargers for $0.35/KWh or just ask for a cup of Starbucks in return.
One of the big concerns with EVs is that there’s no charging infrastructure… well… maybe that problem is already solving itself.
#3: Self-Driving (I mean driving assistance)
Ok. This feature gets a lot of coverage, but I have to list it. I was AMAZED at how easy and reliable this was and also how long it took me to get used to it (about 5 minutes).
I use it all the time, even on bigger local roads and especially at night.
On my first day driving  I was able to get an In N Out Burger (hey! you have to Christen it, right?) and eat the burger with BOTH hands while sitting in stop and go traffic on the 91. It was AWESOME. I am positive that all cars will be adding this over the next decade or so and there will be huge reductions in commuter accidents, stress levels and energy use.
I know other companies are working on it and I know Google has prototypes running around, but I literally did a double click and boom… the car was driving itself. There’s a few situations it didn’t deal with well, but generally speaking it was better at commuting than I was… and not by a little bit.
It’s ironic that the coolest feature about this car is that you DON’T drive it.
#4: Display
I don’t mean the giant screen… that’s cool… but I don’t look at it that much while driving. Why? Because the HUD is amazing. Why other cars haven’t solved these problems is beyond me.
The X gives you a real time collision map while you’re parking in your garage so you can see EXACTLY how far you are from all that random crap lying in your garage. Not only is it useful, it’s also really cool looking.
The GPS being integrated on the left side of the HUD is fantastic and it’s completely natural to use. It also flips seamlessly between GPS and other informational needs based on driving conditions. Everything from climate to music choice is intuitively shown in a minimalistic, easy to read display.
#5: It learns from you
I’ve had 2 or 3 incidents in the last week where the car tells me something.
It asked me to link it to my home network so it could get updates faster.
It noticed that I was in a certain location a lot so it asked if that was my home (and added it to my list).
This kind of slow onboarding and responsiveness is not something I used to having a car do. Cars are supposed to be dumb pieces of aluminum that do what we say. This is an entirely different way of thinking about what a car should be.
FINAL WORDS
I believe that what makes products successful is when they meet one of two criteria
1) They solve a fundamental problem that hasn’t been solved before (or as well).
2) They provide an experience that is meaningfully better than what was there before.
Few products do both. the iPhone was one, the Model X is another. I simply can’t imagine driving another car after a week in my X, and I suspect when the 3 comes out many hundreds of thousands (and potentially millions) of people will have a very similar feeling.
I was already pretty lazy and with the X I can be even lazier… so thanks for that!
I suspect the rest of the auto industry has noticed and they will have to substantially up their game. This will provide huge benefits in terms of safety, energy use and quality of life for many millions of people around the world in the years to come.
Well done.

Why I think America is a great country

It’s eternally popular in the United States to think that we are the verge of ruin.

Newspapers love to talk about it.

Politicians love to whine about it.

People with agendas can point out one problem after another.

Today, like any other day, it looks like we are on the brink of disaster and there is no way that we can possibly get out.

These people are wrong.

And when people look to the past to try and work out what the future should look like they are being short sighted and foolish. We should not seek to make America tomorrow look anything like America yesterday.

Yes. The founding fathers were really smart and great visionaries, but they also made tons of mistakes that have been corrected over the past 200+ years. In fact, their greatest contribution was that they knew they didn’t know everything and so they created a flexible and self-improving system. They could not even imagine the world today and would be mesmerized by what was built on their foundation.

Let’s look at a short list of things that America has overcome:

1) Revolution. We were a series of colonies run by the biggest and most powerful empire in the world. A comparatively rag tag group of “terrorists” were able to defeat that large empire in a brutal and protracted military engagement.

2) Country Construction. Other countries have done this, but very few have then subsequently formed a country that DIDN’T duplicate what they had just fought against. We DIDN’T crown a king. We DIDN’T end up with 13 different countries that blow each other up every couple of decades.

3) Slavery. Remember how slavery used to be legal? Remember how people would say if we got rid of it the entire economy would collapse? Remember how we fought a brutal civil war over it? Well… our nation survived that and it was probably the most difficult test in our history.

4) Child Labor. Like slavery child labor has a rich history in the US. And this isn’t ancient history. The final nail in the coffin of child labor was pounded in 1938. Now I know that there are kids who work and I’m sure there’s child exploitation, but it’s largely stamped out and a federal crime.

5) Women’s Rights. Remember when women were basically the property of men? Remember when women couldn’t vote? Remember when the entire idea of sexual harassment didn’t even exist. Well, it wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote… something that would be unthinkable back in 1776.

6) McCarthyism. Remember when our country was locking people up for what they think? Remember when millions of people ran around believing that someone they know could be a spy for the Russians and that if we didn’t lock them up our whole country would be destroyed? Well… we survived that too…. and I know people see parallels with terrorism today, but it’s not even close to the same level… at least not yet. But we’ll survive that too.

7) Civil Rights. Remember the good ol’ 50s when it was totally legal to force black people to go to the back of the bus, drink from separate fountains, go to separate schools and not go into certain stores? Well… that’s gone too. And while racism is still alive and well it’s a completely different picture today. I see parallels here with the transgender issues today and I’m confident that will go down the same path… I just wish it didn’t take so much time and cause so much pain.

8) Cold War. Now we’re getting to something I actually lived through :). Remember when the world was going to be blown up at any moment? Thousands of nukes were going to destroy everything and the US was one of the countries that would be responsible for that. Well… we survived that, at least so far. Unfortunately there are still thousands of nukes out there, but I don’t remember seeing too many headlines that a massive nuclear attack is going to blow us up.

I could go on and on. I missed a lot. 2 world wars, the great depression, presidential assassinations, impeachment, getting off the gold standard, stagflation. Choose your poison.

TODAY’S PROBLEMS ARE NOT THAT BAD

Today we have climate change, shrinking middle class, destruction of manufacturing, rise of China, immigration, growing national debt, crumbling infrastructure, and so on.

I would argue that few of these problems rates as highly as the ones above, but they all seem much worse today. And I would argue that we are well positioned to respond to them, work out solutions and come out a better country because of it. Further, I think in 100 years we will look back and think “what the hell were those idiots thinking?”

And that’s the point.

We MUST look forward and create new solutions, not look backwards and pine for the past. That’s what makes America a great country… optimism and belief in the future despite the current environment of adversity and negativity.

Also, we underestimate the “Platform of America.” By that I mean that if you travel around the world what you notice is things like a reasonably stable rule of law, freedom to say and think what you want, the right to representation, due process, access to clean food and water, low crime rates, low infant mortality, support for education and entrepreneurship are NOT free and broadly available. Any person living in America is inside of a incredibly powerful platform that each of us can build upon.

That’s rare in the world today, and much rarer in history.


WAIT A MINUTE, ARE YOU SOME KIND OF BLIND PATRIOT NATIONALIST

Not at all.

America does and has done many terrible things, especially when we operate abroad. One of my biggest problems with America is that the way we act and behave outside of our borders is often the exact opposite of what we do inside. I wish this wasn’t the case and I hope in the future we can really become an exporter of certain fundamental principals that I think need to be universally available and aren’t.

We need to stop supporting dictators. Period.
We need to stop financing the toppling of democratically elected leaders.
We need to be opponents of the things we wouldn’t tolerate internally both in action and in speech. And I don’t mean fighting stupid wars, I mean supporting international frameworks that will transform the world in a positive way.
We need to provide our citizens health care.
We need to improve our infrastructure.
..and on and on…

America is a deeply flawed country that needs to do lots of work. And we’ve also done many terrible things which we can never pay back.

I’m also not saying “America is the greatest nation on earth.” Those statements are silly because there is no great basis of comparison. There are many great nations in the world and we can all learn from each other… but I DO think that America has one of the best systems for doing exactly that.

I’m also not saying that America will always be the #1 super power or the richest country etc. The future is unknowable and countries tend to grow and shrink all the time. The UK was once the biggest empire in the world, as was Spain. No longer. But I’d argue that the UK is also still a great country and has been around for many centuries longer than the US.

DON’T LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT… FIX IT

I often hear people say or imply that if you don’t love America, you should leave.

That’s cowardly. You should try to fix it and the people that tell you to leave because you don’t like something here miss the entire power of the American platform.

It NEEDS criticism, conflict, constant questioning, strong opinions and, unfortunately, even occasional violence, in order to be shaped, molded and improved.

The last thing we want is a country of people that are content with the way things are and if anyone disagrees with them they are invited to shut up or leave.

That’s anti-American.

We should invite difference of opinion, stand up for our beliefs, argue, debate… anything short of violence and over time I believe we will come out with a better system… at least that has been the trend.

LOOK TO THE FUTURE
When I look at the past and present, makes me look to the future.

The solutions to today’s problems will not be found yesterday.

Slogans like “make America great again” are looking at things the wrong way around. There are things that ARE great today and things that aren’t. So lets figure out how to make the things that aren’t great better instead of trying to rewind to clock to some historical fantasy that didn’t and won’t exist.

Let’s build on this amazing platform and improve the world for ourselves, our children an our fellow humans of the earth.

If you disagree and think th

I don’t know about everyone else but I am optimistic that when I die the world will be a better place than it is today, and it’s up to all of us to make sure that happens.

How AI will force us to confront our purpose in the Universe.

RISE OF THE MACHINES

AI is a hot topic these days.

Everything from self driving cars to robotic surgery seems to be making headlines.

Along with the amazement of an automated future, something troubling has simultaneously arisen.

If AI can do everything humans can do, but better… what do the humans do?

Many articles discuss how humans will potentially become more creatively focused, we will awaken our intrinsic motivations instead of constantly focusing on extrinsic rewards. Switzerland is voting on a referendum to give every citizen $2600/mo tax free. While unlikely to pass, other cities are already experimenting with the idea of “basic income.”

Those experiments and ideas are not directly related to AI per se, but they do reflect a long term trend in machines taking over work from humans.

What started in the industrial revolution in manufacturing has slowly been swallowing up more and more work. This shows up as a general term of “efficiency” but I think what it really represents is replacing human effort with non-human effort.

Whether, and to what extent, this is “good” or “bad” is subject to interpretation. On the one hand having a machine that can harvest corn is far more efficient than having hundreds of people doing it by hand. It also frees those people from the repetitive and uncomfortable job of harvesting corn by hand. However, if your life is dependent on you harvesting corn by hand, this replacement is a mixed blessing at best.

THE SPEED OF REPLACEMENT

Something that makes these transitions even more painful is that they tend to happen quite quickly. In the US, for example, we have seen the manufacturing workforce shrink in size and reduce in costs while increasing output. This happened within a few decades leaving many millions of people without a way to replace the income they had from the previous occupations, regardless of how dangerous, repetitive and unrewarding they may have been. One could argue that there are people who genuinely love this kind of work, but I suspect for most it was a comparatively good income that was the main attraction.

It’s easy to come up with simple and cavalier solutions.

Free from the toil of tedious manufacturing work, they are free to train for new, more exciting positions. But practically how does this work? Without the income from the previous job how does one pay for retraining? And even if one had the means to retrain, how will one find the time while having another position to keep one’s life going? And of course there are the legion practical difficulties of relearning something late in one’s career.

We can also take the position that market forces will work this out. Sure, a few people will be victims of technological progress, but from a broader social point of view, it’s a small price to pay. Well… maybe.

THE BREADTH OF REPLACEMENT

Up until now, technology has primarily focused on replacing physical jobs. Almost all technology from the industrialization period on (and before) have focused on replacing physical human effort with machines. The wheel, the lever, the printing press, Railroads, automobiles and trucks, robots on assembly lines, and so on have slowly replaced humans, even as the work moved from country to country as companies chased low cost labor as a way to compete with each other.

The rise of the machines has been relentless, rapid and broad.

With AI though, the replacement could be much broader. It could start to include so-called “knowledge workers.” People like meteorologists, lawyers, real estate agents, doctors, financial advisors, pharmacists, programmers etc. may find themselves increasing replaced with semi-intelligent learning machines. Beyond that more “complex” jobs such as drivers, pilots, and soldiers may find themselves replaced by more comprehensive and cheaper robotic alternatives. Indeed, the idea of replacing drivers was unthinkable even as little as 10 years ago… now it seems almost certain.

These are no longer physically demanding and grueling jobs… these are the so-called “good” jobs that humans are “built for.”

But if we replace all of these jobs with cheaper, more efficient alternatives, what should those people train to do? Is there something beyond “knowledge work” which humans are better at that is even more desirable and rewarding?

GOING EVEN BROADER

Ok. So maybe further down the line we become a species of creative expression and invention. No longer limited by physical needs or even mental needs we can essentially “do what we want.” Putting aside the economic problems that this may spark, let’s imagine what this may look like.

Perhaps people can focus on music or painting or sports or invention. Personally rewarding, creative and entertaining pursuits that still give personal meaning as well as social value.

But what if the machines can do that as well?

What if an AI can compose BETTER music, paint a BETTER painting and play a BETTER game of basketball? What then?

What if we develop an AI that can find the cure for cancer? Or figure out how to colonize Mars? Or how to travel faster than light?

What if in a few hundred or a few thousand years we just watch in awe as our creation grows far beyond our wildest dreams?

And why wouldn’t this happen?

The incentive for making the best is what drives this from it’s origin, isn’t it?

If machines are better at the physical, and then better at the cognitive, why can’t they also be better at the creative?

I think they can, and I think they will.

INVERTING THE PROBLEM

So I think it’s worth turning this around.

Why are we making these machines at all? Is it to make life “better.” Better for whom? And what is better exactly? Less toil? Less suffering? Less pain? Is it about making things easier and safer?

Is it for our continued survival as a species?

Ok. Let’s assume that’s true… once we’ve checked off “survival” as a goal, does it become about maximizing comfort and satisfaction?

But again, we must face the eternal why.

Let’s imagine an absurd world where an army of perfect robots can provide us with every need, solve every problem, advance technology faster than we ever could and, more importantly, improve itself FASTER than we can improve them. And let’s imagine that their sole purpose is to fulfill our human desires.

What does that world look like?

If the end result of our current trajectory is to lead a life of leisure and consumption, why should we exist at all? Beyond the pure personal experience, what is the difference between living a life of pure indulgent consumption and living no life at all?

Don’t get me wrong… people could and would still fulfill their desires. They could still paint and make music. They could still program and tinker with new technology. All that would be completely possible, but it would make as much difference to the AI robots as a group of ants collecting chips on the floor.

SO WHAT *IS* OUR PURPOSE IN THE UNIVERSE?

Well… of course I don’t know, and neither do you.

Perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps “purpose” is the evolutionary requirement in our minds to keep the species going. It’s what causes us to behave in the ways we do, invent the things we invent in order to keep the genes passing from one generation to the next; building up to the next evolutionary leap.  Perhaps that illusion is so deeply implanted into us that we can’t escape it even if we are completely aware of it.

Perhaps we are just one dot in the chain of evolution and once we replace the slow, biological evolutionary advances with the more rapid and exponential technical ones… we will have served our purpose and, like the dinosaurs before us, we should be eliminated to make way for another species to have it’s chance.

And maybe that is purpose enough.

Will AI and Androids Take over the World?

The Coming of the Terminators

Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk made headlines this year by raising the specter of super advanced Artificially Intelligent machines taking over the world. The idea goes something like this:

1) Today humans dominate because we are creative and can make complex decisions.
2) Computers/Robots are “mindless” servant that do our bidding.
3) In the race to make things “more efficient” we will eventually make AI that can imagine and create.
4) When that AI does that it will realize it doesn’t need us anymore.
5) Bye bye, humans.

OK cool.

So my first reaction is… what’s the problem? I mean from a universal evolutionary standpoint, there’s not really any reason to believe that humans are special. If a meteor can wipe out the Dinosaurs (who dominated FAR longer than we have) in a few geologic seconds; why can’t we get wiped out by the results of our own making. Sure.. it is bad for HUMANS, but that doesn’t mean that it’s some kind of universal evil.

But let’s be more practical. Let’s assume that the Star Trek vision of the universe is “objectively good” or at least desirable for humanity. Does AI really threaten that and if so, how?

Between here and there

I think that the conversation has become far too black and white. On the one hand “AI will always be our loyal slaves” and on the other “eventually they will wipe us out.”

I’d like to talk a bit about the road in between starting with the very near future… say 50-150 years.

The last 150 years has been marked by “machines” and technology replacing base human labor. Robots build cars, stuff boxes, package things, cut down trees, break rocks, construct buildings and so on. As that storm has raged, humans have become more “efficient.” That is, it used to take many thousands of people many years to build a pyramid, but a few hundred people can build a skyscraper in a year or two. The side effect of this, of course, has been that humans have to compete with robots for labor “wages.”

So if you own an auto plant you have to decide if paying someone $x/hr over the course of 30 years is cheaper or more expensive than buying a robot for $x and maintaining it. That pushes car making (and everything else) to cheaper labor costs (robots or cheaper humans).  The reason why this is different than before is that the labor wages are not moving between people but from people to machines… and thus, the owner of the machines. The flip side is that the cost of those things also drops dramatically so as long as there is other work, that displaced worker can live cheaper. And thus over the past 150 years the cost of things has generally reduced while the “productivity” has gone up.

Ok. That is a very primitive summary and you could fire a bunch of holes into it, but it’s not really what I want to talk about… it’s more setting the stage, so bear with me. My main point is that machines in the past 150 years have primarily replaced human physical activity as opposed to human mental activity.

The Next 150 Years Looks Quite Different

I think that is going to change dramatically.

The next stage in the eternal quest for efficiency and productivity is to reduce the cost of mental activity. We can already see this happening with things like self-driving cars. Driving is a suboptimal human activity. It’s boring, frustrating, dangerous and doesn’t really create value. If we can get robots to do it for us, GREAT!. Of course, that means we take out the people who make a living driving, but that’s just the natural cost of the ongoing technology evolution, right? Those people can learn to do something more useful, more fun, more helpful, and more interesting. Maybe they can start a blog or something…

Other areas also seem pretty obvious… how about ordering fast food? Or how about checking out at the grocery store? Or what about trying to find a special tool at Home Depot? Imagine if there’s Wall-e the helpful robot tool guy and you ask him, and he cheerfully shows you exactly what you need. No more listening to someone drone on about some uninteresting thing, no more waiting while he finds the person who might know the answer, no more “hmm… I’m not sure if we have that, let me go find out.”

Restaurants could also benefit. Who needs a moody waiter or an overstressed kid on their first day screwing up your order. Androids would always be polite, accurate, and efficient. You can even just pay with your iPhone and not even leave a tip!

Of course all those people lose their jobs too… but of course, they can find more productive things to do. Or so we hope.

But Wait A Minute…

I think we’re actually going somewhere else… maybe a step “further” or maybe a different step.

Actually I think robo-waiters are not going to be so easy… because when I go out to eat I VALUE the human interaction and while you can AI that pretty effectively, it’s very hard to AI the warmth and care. If you have a favorite restaurant you may know the waiter’s family (through pictures), you feel happy seeing him, and if he screws up your order a bit, that’s ok because he probably also remembers something or can notice when you’re down and cheer you up. These “semi-intimate” service jobs have a very high value component that goes beyond getting what you want quickly.

Same with the Home Depot person. She may ask you about what you’re trying to do and empathize with your frustration of not knowing how a toilet actually flushes. She may take time to explain it, crack a joke and make you feel better. That’s a pretty hard thing to AI away.

But… I think there’s another kind of service industry that WILL benefit from AI… and it’s much scarier when it comes to “retraining people.”

Let’s think about areas where errors lead to real consequences. Like, say, surgery? Or maybe military tactics? Or police work? Or perhaps judges? What about deciding whether a drug should be approved or not? Those are areas where AI androids might do BETTER than people and as a consumer I don’t care as much about the human side. When I’m knocked out on the OR table and someone is going to cut me open… who do I want? The human surgeon who just got out of a law suit and found out that his wife is cheating on him… maybe he had a drink after a 12 hour shift and was called back last second? Or do I want the feelingless, tireless and perfectly accurate robot that has millions of historic cases of surgery it can recall instantly to make the best possible decision and execute each cut perfectly?

Hmm… I think I want the robot.

Surgery and Driving are more similar than Waitering and Driving.

If I run a hospital, this is good news. I am pretty sure that when androids start doing medical procedures, malpractice rates will go DOWN. So all we need is one or two human professionals to make sure that the machines are working well and we’re good. Of course we still need the hardcore research but that’s a small fraction of human labor. So all you people working hard to become surgeons and make big bucks… sorry! You probably want to learn to be a very good waiter instead.

What about other parts of the medical field? General diagnosis, taking blood, urine samples, dispensing medications, etc. I think Androids are better at that too. Once the have all the information and cases available I think they will be more accurate at diagnosing than humans. And I think they will be BETTER on their own than with human/machine interaction – contrary to what expert humans will say of course :).

Why? Because these are classic areas where humans will be overconfident, bias in their anchoring, not have all the information, etc. What AI can’t replace is a person who shows empathy and compassion… but that’s a very different kind of job…normally more part of “nursing.” The doctor is the jerk who knows everything and the nurse is the nice person who cares. I think the jerk who knows everything is much easier to AI away. I need a nice person who makes me feel good, but I want the AI doing the diagnosis and deciding the treatment.

Of course, people will have to get used to this. The first generation will rebel and want the “good old days” but assuming the outcomes are superior, the new technology will win out.

I dug into medicine, but I think anywhere you see jobs that require calculated decision where bad outcomes are actually dangerous, you will see AI take over. And that’s a LOT of people. AND they can scale very quickly. A single AI can probably diagnose hundreds of people at the same time, given that we have enough input devices (some kind of tricorder, or maybe an army of humans who just hook you up to some machines). In essence the humans in these areas will do what the AI says, not the other way around.

Think about your own job. Does this describe what you do? Well… maybe not for long.

Scary, huh?

Conclusion

While I think we are very far from AI “taking over humanity and wiping it out” I do think we will face the very real challenge of  high-risk outcome, judgment based jobs being replaced by AI. And those jobs ARE interesting and productive for people… it’s just… we’re not as good at them.

So we will face a different problem. Is it BETTER for people to be less efficient and have worse outcomes in exchange for being more professionally satisfied, or is the race to improved efficiency and better outcomes the more important goal?