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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Strategic CSR - Robots

The article in the url below offers a calming perspective on the current hyperventilation about the threat to employment of artificial intelligence. In doing so, it presents two points that help me better process the flood of opinion about this topic from all sides of the debate. First, is the need to place AI in some context. For example, it is a fact that "the field of artificial intelligence is now more than a half-century old," but we have managed to survive (if not exactly thrive) so far. As a result of this long history, automation has been a constant in the evolving nature of 'work' to an extent that we often forget (emphasis added):
 
"… despite centuries of progress in automation and recurrent warnings of a jobless future, total employment has continued to increase relentlessly, even with bumps along the way. More remarkable is the fact that today's most dire projections of jobs lost to automation fall short of historical norms. A recent analysis … quantified the rate of job destruction (and creation) in each decade since 1850, based on census data. They found that an incredible 57% of the jobs that workers did in 1960 no longer exist today."
 
Beyond this fundamental context, a more subtle distinction is between the potential for robots to replace jobs verses the potential to replace specific tasks. In other words, rather than replace workers, they enable existing workers to do their jobs more effectively. Recent studies in this vein suggest that:
 
"… by 2055, more than 50% of all work-related tasks will be subject to automation. Such studies naturally raise concerns that we may be on the brink of an unprecedented employment crisis. But robots aren't mechanical people. They are a new wave of automation, and like previous waves, they reduce the need for human labor. In doing so, they make the remaining workers more productive and their companies more profitable. These profits then find their way into the pockets of employees, stockholders and consumers (through lower prices). This newfound wealth, in turn, increases demand for products and services, compensating for lost jobs by employing even more people."
 
Ultimately, there is a pattern to the encroaching use of AI in work – one that should help society, rather than necessarily threaten it:
 
"As the logic goes, if artificial intelligence is getting so smart that it can recognize cats, drive cars, beat world-champion Go players, identify cancerous lesions and translate from one language to another, won't it soon be capable of doing just about anything a person can? Not by a long shot. What all of these tasks have in common is that they involve finding subtle patterns in very large collections of data, a process that goes by the name of machine learning. The kinds of data vary, of course. It might be pixels in cat photos, bytes streaming from a dashboard camera, millions of computer-generated games of Go, digital X-rays or volumes of human-translated documents. But it is misleading to characterize all of this as some extraordinary leap toward duplicating human intelligence. The selfie app in your phone that places bunny ears on your head doesn't 'know' anything about you. For its purposes, your meticulously posed image is just a bundle of bits to be strained through an algorithm that determines where to place Snapchat face filters. These programs present no more of a threat to human primacy than did automatic looms, phonographs and calculators, all of which were greeted with astonishment and trepidation by the workers they replaced when first introduced."
 
Robots, AI, machine-learning, etc., will increase productivity, which will result in greater wealth, which will then be spent:
 
"Luxury hotels are not prized because they are more efficient but because their staff is more attentive. People pay more to watch a barista brew their latte than for a comparable product from a vending machine, and I somehow doubt that our grandchildren will want to tell their troubles to a robotic bartender or prefer to stick their hands in a manicure machine. In the future, the masses may make do with simple-minded domestic robots while the upper crust hires ever more butlers and maids. The Jetsons, after all, were a middle-class family."
 
The key, of course, is to make sure the wealth is more evenly distributed, rather than narrowly distributed. This, of course, is the essence of the current debate that is causing so much political upheaval. But, that is a different issue as to whether AI is to be welcomed and encouraged, rather than feared. We know that humans do not handle change very well. We are currently undergoing a period of concentrated change, the turmoil from which is beginning to show up in political elections/structures. The article reinforces my sense that, while progress always represents a dislocation that will effect some sections of society more negatively than others; in general, the majority will benefit. For example, I do not see many people suggesting we should return to an agrarian economy, even though the shift to an industrialized society caused massive upheaval for the 40% of society that used to work on farms.
 
Take care
David
 
 
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Don't Fear the Robots
By Jerry Kaplan
July 22-23, 2017
The Wall Street Journal
Late Edition – Final
C3