“Forget everything you think you know,” said every bad sci-fi movie trailer ever. From Skynet to Sonny to Scarlett Johansson, artificial intelligence (AI) has taken on many forms in pop culture, but almost every one of them has been wrong. Today, AI exists in almost every aspect of our lives, from Facebook and its advertising algorithms to robotic arms in car factories — it is everywhere. So forget everything you think you know about AI, and let’s take a step outside The Echo Chamber.
AI has the potential to make our lives infinitely better. Automated driving would arguably decrease the number of accidents immensely, automated robots could 3D print organs and food supplies on demand and, as some claim, could free us from menial labor altogether. But, if not policed carefully, AI has the potential to be very, very scary.
In the short term, it’s not a Skynet future we should be worried about but a jobless one. A 2013 study conducted at the University of Oxford found that 47 percent of jobs are at high risk of becoming automated in perhaps a decade or two. Transportation and warehousing alone comprise roughly three percent of the entire American labor market. With self-driving cars and automated warehouses just over the horizon, it is only a matter of time before unions and policymakers give way to economic efficiency and technological progress. To companies, the economics of the matter are simple — no human plus no salary equals more profit. No government or economy is ready for such a massive exodus of employment, and because policy tends to be reactive rather than proactive, when we finally come to terms with the reality of such a shift, it may already be too late.
Still, some argue that old labor sectors that have been wiped out by “creative destruction” will be replaced by new ones. They point to the Industrial Revolution, during which machinery enabled one person to do the work of 20, and yet, we were still able to maintain full employment. They see high-tech and on-demand services as the jobs of the future. But can these two sectors alone support a population over 10 times larger than it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution? If not, our entire understanding of how society works may have to change.
In the long term, the potential ramifications of AI are magnitudes greater. Many experts see the rise of AI as either the key to immortality or the tripwire to our destruction. It sounds crazy, but remember that technological change follows a path of exponential progress — need I remind you that only 10 years ago, the iPhone didn’t even exist? It is quite possible for a computer that is better than us at everything in every way to exist within our lifetime. And such a computer could theoretically calculate the solution to aging or become humanity’s single biggest existential threat, as Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has warned. Technological change has the potential to creep steadily until, one day, it begins to invade every aspect of our existence.
Will AI improve our society or destroy its very foundations? That’s for you to decide. I just hope that you’ve enjoyed one last ride outside The Echo Chamber.