Two research laboratories are developing computers to new levels of sophistication that are making human work (and jobs) increasingly irrelevant. There are two fields, one called Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the other called Intelligence Augmentation (IA) that are revolutionizing technology and transforming the world.
The New York Times reported the following:
Watson is an effort by I.B.M. researchers to advance a set of techniques used to process human language. It provides striking evidence that computing systems will no longer be limited to responding to simple commands. Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.
Traditionally, economists have argued that while new forms of automation may displace jobs in the short run, over longer periods of time economic growth and job creation have continued to outpace any job-killing technologies. For example, over the past century and a half the shift from being a largely agrarian society to one in which less than 1 percent of the United States labor force is in agriculture is frequently cited as evidence of the economy’s ability to reinvent itself.
That, however, was before machines began to “understand” human language. Rapid progress in natural language processing is beginning to lead to a new wave of automation that promises to transform areas of the economy that have until now been untouched by technological change.
“As designers of tools and products and technologies we should think more about these issues,” said Pattie Maes, a computer scientist at the M.I.T. Media Lab. Not only do designers face ethical issues, she argues, but increasingly as skills that were once exclusively human are simulated by machines, their designers are faced with the challenge of rethinking what it means to be human.
I.B.M.’s executives have said they intend to commercialize Watson to provide a new class of question-answering systems in business, education and medicine. The repercussions of such technology are unknown, but it is possible, for example, to envision systems that replace not only human experts, but hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs throughout the economy and around the globe. Virtually any job that now involves answering questions and conducting commercial transactions by telephone will soon be at risk. It is only necessary to consider how quickly A.T.M.’s displaced human bank tellers to have an idea of what could happen.
That is the underside of technological advancement - replacing human labor and well paying jobs with machines. That would be OK if the benefits of the reduction in the labor force were widely shared, but they aren't. The benefits accrue mainly to the large corporations that can deploy these machines while the people who are displaced find themselves mainly out of a job and out of the ability to support themselves and their families. Labor saving machines do not mean that the average person will not have to work as hard. They mean that the average person will be out of his or her job. Corporations on the other hand will continue to merge and acquire other companies as they march forward in their quest for dominion over the economy. Ownership of assets will become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Those whose main economic asset is their job skills will be marginalized while those whose main asset is the ownership of wealth will continue to get wealthier.
That is why the reliance on increased education as a way out of this dilemma is a chimera. There will be increasing competition for the few remaining highly skilled jobs. There will be an ever intensifying global rat race as Tiger Moms ride herd on their kids to work harder and harder in the global competition for the diminishing number of good paying jobs. Economies will have to reinvent themselves at a faster and faster pace.
That in a nutshell is what is going on today as more and more workers find themselves jobless. If those workers are also owners of economic assets, they can make their living from the return on their investments, but too often their ownership status is meager. They may own their own home, but for most middle class Americans, that is about it; home ownership is their main economic asset. But without a job, equity in a home rapidly disappears until the home is underwater, that is, the home owner owes more than the home is worth. The utopia in which labor saving machines replace the need for human labor with the result that everyone has more free time to enjoy life and the workweek is reduced to just a few short hours is replaced by the dystopia in which out of work former job holders struggle to survive after their unemployment benefits run out. In a society which is becoming increasingly austere, those unfortunate enough to have been replaced by machines, instead of enjoying their increased leisure time, wonder where their next meal is coming from as they face the prospect of living in a cardboard box on the street.
In order for technological advancement to be truly benign, the benefits of the reduction in the need for human labor would have to be widely shared either by spreading ownership of assets more equitably or by redistributing the benefits from owners to non-owners by means of the tax code in the form of welfare. The only way to spread ownership is for the people collectively to engage in wealth producing activities either via their government or by means of cooperatives like Mondragon. If just a few people own economic assets which generate the necessary goods and services, the rest of the population who have had their jobs made redundant and who are "at liberty" will not be able to purchase those goods and services and the economy will grind to a halt especially, ironically enough, in the more developed and advanced parts of the world. The economically developing nations will not fall prey to this phenomenon as badly since their cheap labor, that labor which machines cannot do, will distribute jobs and paychecks to a relatively large number of human hands. But even in these societies ownership of assets will largely come to reside in fewer and fewer hands as job holders will continue to derive economic sustenance mainly from their jobs and not from the return on assets they own.
Societies in which the return from wealth producing assets is widely shared by redistributing wealth from the successful to the unsuccessful will continue to function at a high level because not only will most people have the wherewithal to provide the necessities of life for themselves, but this economic activity will keep the wheels of industry turning albeit they will be turning with fewer and fewer human hands and more and more by machines operating at the behest of sophisticated computers. These "welfare states" will recirculate the wealth that is being created in such a way that more wealth is created. Their governments will be prosperous because of a healthy tax base, and they will continue to provide a large range of public services and infrastructure development. Those societies that don't recirculate wealth will become moribund as their economies grind to a halt. As fewer humans and more machines possess jobs, the tax base will be diminished to the point that even essential human services, services that only human beings can provide such as police, firemen and teachers will be reduced or eliminated to be replaced to some extent by private security guards, private fire districts and private schools.
Some societies may well become utopias. Those are the societies in which the winners in developing new products and services essentially support those unfortunates whose productive efforts went substantially by the wayside. These are societies which conform to the ethic of "we are all in this together." Winners will support losers in the quest for development of new products and services. Other societies will become dystopias as wealth is not widely shared, the benefits of labor reduction are concentrated in fewer hands, government tax bases are eroded and public services dry up. These are the so-called "me societies" in which the ethic is "every person for him or herself." The benefits of labor reduction will accrue to those who are the owners of economic assets and can use machines to replace the need for human labor in their economic operations. Their profits will soar since one of their major expenses is human labor. A machine can crank 24 hours a day; a human can't. Eventually though, their profits will diminish as a diminished consumer base can no longer afford to buy much of anything. Money and assets will be concentrated at the top and stop circulating as the society spirals downward and becomes non-functional.