O, Heartless Tin-man, Wilt Thou Beest Mine Shining Knight?
by: David Chien Wai Yuen
The idea of industrial metal exhibiting human-like characteristics, or being able to perform man-like tasks is not a novel fascination. In L. Frank Baum’s 1900 acclaimed literature, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, chronicles the adventures of a young farm girl named Dorothy in the magical land of Oz. In it, she encounters Tin-man, who soon proved to be a useful companion chopping wood to create transports and devices as needed. But without a heart, he had no qualms against decapitating the head off adversarial animals. Perhaps to the genius of the author, decades later, the characterization of Tin-man eerily mirrors the growing anticipation and trepidation of what the advancement of artificial intelligence and automation could entail.
Swelling Automation Excitement and Anxiety
From voice-recognizing assistants like Siri and Alexa, to more fundamental technologies such as behavioral algorithms, suggestive searches and autonomously-powered self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence has come a long way.(1) Machines can now recognize a human face, drive a car, beat a top chess player and are capable of making the right decisions in complex, challenging and changing conditions, rivaling against the frontiers of human capabilities.(2)
All this wasn’t so decades ago, but as artificial intelligence continues to make inroads into our everyday lives, the excitement of the coming machine age exuberated by the futurists and tech wizards is not replicated among the common man on the street.
According to Pew Research, 72% of Americans are very or somewhat worried about a future where robots and computers are capable of doing human tasks – more than double the 33% of people who were optimistic about the prospect. 76% are concerned that the automation of jobs will worsen income inequality. A similar share also anticipates that the economy will not create many new, better-paying jobs for those human workers replaced by machines.(3)
Image Title: More Worry Than Optimism About Potential Developments in Automation. Source: Pew Research Centre(4)
Clearly, attitudes towards the coming technological metamorphosis are polarized. Even economists are divided in their opinion in what many termed the “fourth industrial revolution”. There generally exists two diverging opinions: One camp subscribes to the ‘pessimistic view’ and the other, a more optimistic outlook.
All Doom and Gloom
For the pessimists, sentiments usually follow that human workers will ultimately be displaced by artificial intelligence resulting in unparalleled levels of unemployment and income inequality.
With automation, machines perform part or all of an occupational task, diminishing or eliminating the human labor needed. New technology can also make products obsolete. For example, the invention of automobiles of the 19th century has eliminated jobs for carriage makers, even though it has created a market for car manufacturing. Technology can also transform work organization. For example, communication technologies facilitate decentralization, outsourcing, and offshoring, transferring workload from one group of workers to another. Self-service technologies shifts the bulk of the work to the consumer. Information technology can facilitate new markets. For example, Airbnb and Uber.(5) Although all of these other sorts of technological change can be disruptive and eliminate jobs for many workers, the past two centuries of automation and technological progress have not made human labor obsolete; new jobs are created while old ones are eliminated.
But those concerned about automation and employment are quick to comment that this time, it’s unprecedented.(6)
By definition, artificial intelligence is a ‘disruptive innovation’. Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School, in his book “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, used the term to describe a process by which a product or service budded initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then moves up market with vigor, eventually displacing established competitors.(7) But this time round, the competitors likely to be displaced are us; human beings.
Artificial Intelligence is not just an extension of human capabilities as other technologies in the past have been. It is not a mere compliment for human labor by automating certain human routines. It is a complete substitute for human labor as a whole. The only labor reserved in principle for humanity is that which is non-routine, that which requires creativity and the exercise of judgement: the artists, the professional creative, the professional decision-makers and strategists.(8)
Furthermore, financial returns from intelligent robots are likely to be so much greater than human workers as there will be no recruitment difficulties, wage demands, overtime claims, strikes, sickness leaves, pensions, transport or housing problems to attend to. Coupled with the fact that our whole economic complex has always favored productivity more than social welfare, it can only encourage the trend towards full automation and the utter obsolescence of human work.(9)
All these being said, the development and deployment of artificial intelligence will likely cause widespread replacement of machines for labor, which in turn could lead to high unemployment and further increases in economic inequality. However, some believe that this may just be for the short term, the long-run effects may be tremendously beneficial.
There is a Silver Lining
Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes was also drawn into the debate on increasing automation of his times. In his well-known essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, Keynes expressed his optimism about the future in the face of astonishing unemployment induced by technology. He wrote, “We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick.”
Keynes, was suggesting that if technology were to fully replaced jobs, it would solve most of our economic problems. Standards of living would rise and an advent of “an age of leisure and abundance” in which people will be set free “to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue, that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable”.(10)
Perhaps the most unlikeliest of persons found to reflect similar sentiments would be the bitterest of critics of capitalism, Karl Marx. In his writing, “The Fragment on Machines” he wrote, ‘Labor no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. As soon as labor in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labor time ceases and must cease to be its measure. Capitalism thus works towards its own dissolution as the form dominating production.” What follows is: “the general reduction of the necessary labor of society to a minimum, which corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them. Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”
To many optimists, universal basic income is the ultimate solution to artificial intelligence making millions of jobs obsolete. This would also be the Marxist dream— people having all their necessities supplied for due to the overabundance of mechanized production, and are then able to spend their time on art, science, leisure and self-actualization.(11)
In essence, to these moguls in economics, they firmly believe that with the complete arrival of man-obsoleting technology, man will finally be liberated from the shackles of their toil and into robo-Utopia. Still, little would Keynes and Marx have known that the answer might be in the form of man-like machineries with surpassing intellect.
So who is right: the pessimists, who say this time it’s different resulting in arduous economic pangs, or the optimists, who insist that in the end, man will enjoy eternal splendor? The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But despite the wide spectrum of opinions expressed, the prescription is clear: companies and governments will need to make it seamless for workers to adopt new relevant skills and switch jobs as needed. This would provide the best safety net in the event that the pessimists are right and the impact of artificial intelligence proves to be more substantial than the optimists expect.(12)
Instead of the heartless tin monster that he is, we can only hope that Tin-man would indeed turn out to become humanity’s greatest knight in shining armor for all-time.
- European Parliament: Artificial Intelligence: Potential Benefits and Ethical Considerations. (Online) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/571380/IPOL_BRI%282016%29571380_EN.pdf Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- The Guardian: Master of machines: the rise of artificial intelligence calls for postgrad experts (Online) https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/10/master-machines-rise-artificial-intelligence-postgraduate-student-experts Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- World Economic Forum: This how Americans really see the rise of automation. (Online) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/this-how-americans-really-see-the-rise-of-automation Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- Pew Research Centre: Automation in Everyday Life. (Online) http://www.pewinternet.org/2017/10/04/automation-in-everyday-life/ Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- VoxEU: How computer automation affects occupations: Technology, jobs, and skills (Online) http://voxeu.org/article/how-computer-automation-affects-occupations Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- Journal of Economic Perspectives: Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation (Online) https://economics.mit.edu/files/11563 Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- Clayton Christensen: Disruptive Innovation (Online) http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/ Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- Medium: The Economics of Artificial Intelligence (Online) https://medium.com/@brendanmarkeytowler/the-economics-of-artificial-intelligence-abb5c7ebff44 Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- The Guardian: The rise of the robots brings threats and opportunities (Online) https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/26/the-rise-of-the-robots-brings-threats-and-opportunities Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- The Guardian: John Maynard Keynes’s hypothetical grandchildren (Online) https://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/may/08/john-maynard-keynes-hypothetical-grandchildren Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- Medium: Did Karl Marx Predict Artificial Intelligence 170 Years Ago? (Online) https://medium.com/@MichaelMcBride/did-karl-marx-predict-artificial-intelligence-170-years-ago-4fd7c23505ef Accessed on 13 December 2017.
- The Economist: Automation and anxiety. (Online) https://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21700758-will-smarter-machines-cause-mass-unemployment-automation-and-anxiety Accessed on 13 December 2017.