By Kirk Douglas
Many times over I have delved into the lack of human interaction that could inevitably become our future due to robot intelligence. Whether discussing the prospect of driverless cars, future robotics or advanced software programming, many of the tools equipped to create such a future are in existence today. These technologies are often used small-scale, remain in development or occur seemingly absent from our view. But look around and you’re sure to see the impact of artificial intelligence and robotics, albeit in limited use today.
The idea of a future where these technologies reduce the need for human employment and interaction could be nothing short of catastrophic. For some, the thought of such a future is dystopian to say the least, pushing the need for human labor into a backseat position. Behind future A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) and yes, behind future robotics.
Many of us have seen the videos of Boston Dynamics’ robot fleet including one of the first viral videos of such creations, “Big Dog.” As the video describes, “BigDog climbs in the woods, keeps its balance when kicked and when slipping on ice, travels through snow and mud, jogs 5 mph, and climbs some rubble.” Impressive feats indeed for robot tech. Ample for delivery of supplies in a combat situation. Perhaps even someday disarming potential explosives and so on.
Of the many potentially positive uses, something in machinery like Big Dog awakens excitement for the future among technology enthusiasts while simultaneously striking fear through many of us by way of the inherent uncertainty of its future use. Watch some of the online videos and the comments are abound with sentiment about these advancements being “nightmare fuel.” And perhaps people feel this way rightfully so as we have seen many a book or Sci-Fi movie accurately predict certain aspects that exist today in our current technology.
The robots aren’t ruling the world just yet but if you think about it on a more simplistic level we are already slaves in some way, many of us in a 9 to 5 relying almost entirely on workstation computers, specialized software and algorithmic mathematics and brilliantly written code to help us do our jobs. Humans made almost everything – or at least conceptualized – and wrote software to produce almost every major piece of technology we interact with today. The tiny bits of algorithmic magic and computer learning are relegated mostly to the online services we use and arguably have little impact on our actual work duties. But what if they didn’t? The future of intelligence, both in software and robotics is advancing at breakneck speed and we have to wonder how our world might change dramatically over the next 100 years with these advancements.
It was by recommendation of a friend and coworker that I came across an interesting piece of video commentary on this very topic. “Humans Need Not Apply,” a YouTube video viewed more than 6 million times, ponders this very question. It has subsequently sparked many responses, commentary and insight from others sharing their own viewpoints. And by recommendation, I decided after watching it for myself that I would share some thoughts on it.
See the embedded video below (15 minutes in length)
There are many thought-provoking points being made in the video but i’ve chosen to break it down into just a few categories. I’ll use the term “threat” to categorize 3 of the main types of technology the video points out:
Threat 1: Smart Robotics. This is a category of machinery that is less expensive than industrial tooling used for manufacturing. Smart robots like the Baxter Robot mentioned in the video can learn by ‘seeing’ a task performed and complete the same task with a lower margin of error and at a fraction of the cost of a human worker.
The video uses an effective analogy discussing the use of horses before cars and more effective ways of transport and delivery. The narrative of the video states that “As mechanical muscles pushed horses out of the economy, mechanical minds will do the same to humans. Not immediately, not everywhere but in large enough numbers and soon enough that it is going to be a huge problem if we are not prepared …and we are not prepared.”
A scary idea indeed but a reasonable enough conclusion one might draw if say your barista or dry cleaner was replaced entirely by robots. These small daily or weekly tasks could sacrifice hundreds of thousands of jobs in exchange for convenience. Effectively damaging our human workforce economy whilst satisfying a smaller group of those employed in higher ranking positions. Or at least that is how it could begin.
Threat 2: Automated Cars. As you may have recently heard, be it Google or Apple or any number of existing car manufacturer’s before their confirmed (or rumored) projects, automated vehicles are quickly approaching the prospect of being an option for daily transit. As this aspirational technology achievement slowly becomes a reality, it poses a real threat to one of the worlds largest industries: Transportation.
As the narrative goes, “They don’t need to be perfect they just need to be better than us.” It goes on to state that “human drivers… kill 40,000 people a year with cars just in the United States.” A startling fact that has been mentioned time and time again during tech conferences and car shows as of late, while these advancements become ever-present during such events.
The video cleverly re-defines the “car” as we currently know it as “autos,” describing a range of automated transport options fit for everything from movement in a factory to large scale farming operations and public transit. It is an apt assessment, given that automating across the many ways things move from point A to point B would surely affect the entire industry of transport. The point being made here is that in order to understand how automated vehicles would change our existence, we must re-think calling them cars and call them something more appropriate. “Autos” could come in all shapes and sizes and completely disrupt every sense of ground and even air movement.
Finally, the point is made that the U.S. transportation industry is roughly 3 million people with potentially 70 million people worldwide being affected by such change. Such a blow to this single industry could cause a devastating effect once again to our workforce economy.
Think of the roomate you have who drives for Uber. The many bus drivers and public transit operators, security and information desk staff. These jobs could be eradicated by lower costs in automated vehicle technology.
Threat 3: Software Bots. Automated workplace advancements are already becoming commonplace. Whether your company is analyzing user behaviors with apps, public statistics by watching internet trends, or using off-the-shelf CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software, these products already exist. And they are getting smarter with the power of endless server racks and machine learning.
As the video mentions, we’ve relied initially on the smarts of programmers to write software that can help us complete massive analytical and observational tasks for the betterment of business. But as the software industry continues to push forward in this area, programmers are leaning hard into new ways of development where these ‘bots’ teach themselves.
The video calls on the New York Stock Exchange as just one example of how bots are in use on a daily basis to perform exchanges of money. It further explores the possibility of bots becoming smart enough to be leveraged for work in the fields of law and medical, areas which are already being explored in limited capacity.
The conclusion of Humans Need Not Apply boils down to the three categories above being threats for groups including Professionals, White Collar workers and Low-skill workers alike. This covers about all of us. Scared or not, it is worth thinking long and hard about how technology could impact us both positively and in this case, negatively.
Looking at these threats through a lens of education about technology makes them all the more realistic in their potential to cause mankind himself disruption. I believe it is this reality that feeds fear for some of us. In its last few minutes, the video’s narrator proposes the final frontier for bots could be replacing even our creativity as he reveals that the soundtrack to his 15-minute video was generated entirely by a bot named Emily Howell.
What I found so strikingly engaging about Humans Need Not Apply is that it addresses in most basic terms why we are right to have some sort of fear for our future. As an individual, I very firmly believe that we will find ourselves occasionally faltering as we grapple with these advancements. But I have faith in my fellow man that as we become more educated and in-tune with our own humanity, we will find balance between ourselves and the technology we increasingly rely on.
I can only hope that we evolve ourselves, as one, alongside our technological evolution in such a way that we maintain our human importance.