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The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order?

The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order?

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The Artificial Intelligence Contagion: Can Democracy Withstand the Imminent Transformation of Work, Wealth and the Social Order?

565 pages
7 hours
May 1, 2019


Artificial Intelligence/Robotics: Have we opened a Pandora's Box?

As AI/robotics eliminates jobs across the spectrum, governmental revenues will plummet while the debt increases dramatically. This crisis of limited resources on all levels—underfunded or non-existent pensions, health problems, lack of savings, and job destruction without comparable job creation—will drive many into homelessness and produce a dramatic rise in violence as we fight over shrinking resources.

“Ambitious, deeply researched, and far reaching in its scope and conclusions, Contagion is actually several books in one. Its summary of what AI is and will likely become is a standalone revelation. It also offers a critique of socio-economic ripple effects that verge on dystopian, and essays and “case studies” of specific sectors or regions, notably a chapter on China’s fusion of AI and social control.”
JEFF LONG, New York Times Best-selling Author

“A sobering look at the far-reaching impact that artificial intelligence may have on the economy, the workforce, democracy and all of humanity. The Artificial Intelligence Contagion is a bellwether for anyone seeking to comprehend the global disruption coming our way.”
—DAVID COOPER, President and Technologist , Massive Designs

“We see in the rush to develop AI the arrogance of the human species. Often buried by the exuberance over what AI might do is the massive dislocation it can cause. David and Daniel Barnhizer masterfully lead us through the societal challenges AI poses and offer possible solutions that will enable us to survive the AI contagion.”
—KENNETH A. GRADY, Member, Advisory Boards, Elevate Services, Inc., MDR Lab, and LARI Ltd.

This may be "the scariest book ever".
May 1, 2019

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The Artificial Intelligence Contagion - Daniel Barnhizer






The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

"Until [recently] had I [Jim Al-Khalili, President, British Science Association] been asked what is the most pressing and important conversation we should be having about our future, I might have said climate change or one of the other big challenges facing humanity, such as terrorism, antimicrobial resistance, the threat of pandemics or world poverty. But today I am certain the most important conversation we should be having is about the future of AI. It will dominate what happens with all of these other issues for better or for worse."¹ [emphasis added]

In writing The Artificial Intelligence Contagion we are not saying that what is described here is going to occur in any exact manner or specific time line. Like any others trying to gain a sense of our future we cannot claim any certainty. But it is very clear that humans are simultaneously playing with fire and beset by unbounded hubris and tunnel vision. As an AI researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) describes the dilemma we face in understanding the thing we are creating: If you had a very small neural network [deep learning algorithm], you might be able to understand it. But once it becomes very large, and it has thousands of units per layer and maybe hundreds of layers, then it becomes quite un-understandable.²

The penetration of AI into every aspect of our society continues apace. AI systems are offering amazing breakthroughs in data management and problem solving on a scale far beyond human capabilities. AI/robotics systems create economic efficiencies that reduce dramatically the operating and labor costs of productive business activities. We are seeing a rapid and global expansion of human augmentation through implants, add-ons and other ways to achieve the merging of people with AI and robotics.

Many Swedes, for example, have jumped into the contagion by having computer chips implanted under their skin to better interact with AI applications and create conveniences they consider are improving their quality of life. The UK’s BioTeq has already inserted chips into 150 workers and Biohax, the Swedish company providing the technology, has entered discussions with British employers about implanting the grain of rice size chip into workers in the UK with one company having as many as 190,000 employees.³

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has voiced concern about this development and about whether employees would feel coerced into agreeing to have the chip inserted under their skin. TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady stated: We know workers are already concerned that some employers are using tech to control and micromanage, whittling away their staff’s right to privacy. Microchipping would give bosses even more power and control over their workers. There are obvious risks involved, and employers must not brush them aside, or pressure staff into being chipped."

It is undeniable that AI/robotics systems are doing fantastic things. Examples abound. Artificial Intelligence (AI)-supported robotic surgeons are performing precise and effective operations on brains, eyes, prostate systems and other conditions on levels said to be better than that done by many human surgeons. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a 3D printer that can inexpensively print a 400 square feet home in less than 24 hours, offering significant promise for housing in disaster zones and impoverished areas. The US Army is developing an exoskeleton for its soldiers that will greatly increase their strength and survivability. Once modified for civilian use, such systems could represent a breakthrough for people forced to rely on wheelchairs for mobility.

Japan and China are developing robot caregivers and companions for their elderly, while China is using chatbots to give people a sense of a connection with an AI system that will spend large amounts of time talking with lonely people. China is also introducing cute little robotic teaching assistants for young children, promising no jobs will be lost at this time because the systems are not yet ready to take over full educational responsibilities. The list of positive change related to AI/robotics seems almost endless and the above developments are only samples.

AI applications are everywhere taking on a surprisingly intimate and invasive symbiosis. Alexa and Siri are our friends, guiding us and obeying our commands. We are often required by on-line programs to prove we are not robots, and denied access if we don’t pass the test. Of course we are engaging in an exchange transaction because once we make it onto the Internet everything we do is tracked, stored and mined. Big Data mining is being used by businesses and governments to create virtual simulacra of us so that they can more efficiently anticipate our actions, preferences and needs aimed at manipulating and persuading us to act to advance their agendas and advantage.

With so many positive developments, how can it be claimed that the rapid evolution of Artificial Intelligence and robotics represents anything other than a phenomenal example of human brilliance and inventiveness? The irony is that from the perspectives of companies such as Google and Amazon that are operating in a beauty is in the eye of the beholder financial return environment, such AI-facilitated activities are among the goods rather than the bads. As they regularly inform us, these manipulations and invasions of privacy are ways to make our future shopping and research experiences more efficient and productive. We are, however, writing in Contagion from the perspective of the ordinary citizen in a Western democracy, not a corporation, investor, or government.

One result of Google’s attempts to help us is evidenced by a complaint filed by a significant number of European organizations charging Google with secretive manipulation of customer accounts in violation of EU privacy law. Asking for billions of Euros in fines to be levied against Google, the challenges are based on the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and were filed in the Czech Republic, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. The challenged behavior is described below.

Seven European consumer groups filed complaints against Google with national regulators Tuesday, accusing the internet giant of covertly tracking users’ movements in violation of an EU regulation on data protection. The complaints [argued] … the Internet giant used deceptive design and misleading information, which results in users accepting to be constantly tracked. Council official Gro Mette Moen charged that Google uses extremely detailed and comprehensive personal data without an appropriate judicial basis, and the data is acquired by means of manipulative techniques.

Sometimes we can be too successful. Nuclear weapons, for example, are a technology most would agree should never have been invented. The manipulation of bacteria and viruses into weaponized systems that could devastate much of the world’s population is another example of human recklessness. Notably, the underlying technologies are not inherently harmful. But human hubris renders us unable to resist building ever-more-powerful tools and, once built, we find it nearly impossible to resist using those tools. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the Soviet Union once experimented with nuclear weapons for large-scale landscaping projects in building a lake on the steppes of Kazakhstan and the United States carried out similar experiments to extract natural gas.

These and other technologies demonstrate that great evil can come from the workings of the inventive human mind along with the good that we might otherwise hope. Leading Oxford University AI researcher and philosopher Nick Bostrom suggested the dangers of uncontrolled and uncontrollable advanced AI systems in his profound book, Superintelligence. Bostrom recently doubled down on his initial warning by arguing that the only reason humans haven’t destroyed themselves by now is they have been lucky and fortuitously avoided drawing the worst black ball from the technological stew we are creating.⁷ An increasingly dangerous element in such a threat is the power AI systems provide governments, individuals and corporations.

To understand the potential contributions and threats of Artificial Intelligence/robotics, consider the seemingly far out possibility voiced by Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Japan’s Softbank and a major world actor in AI/robotics and the Internet of Things. He believes Artificial Intelligence systems are likely to reach an incredible IQ level of 10,000 within the next thirty years, perhaps even as soon as 2030.⁸ This compares to the human Einsteinian genius IQ capacity of 200. While efforts to directly equate human IQ with AI IQ are more symbolic than definitive, Artificial Intelligence systems are developing incredible capabilities in numerous dimensions. These include processing speed, data management, pattern recognition and interpretation, systemic awareness, and much more.

Applied to AI/robotics, IQ really stands for "different and alternative intelligence. It should not be taken as representing any direct matching of the human brain’s functions. Our only recently evolved species may turn out to be no more than a brief millennial flicker in the evolution of a universe that came into existence more than 10 billion years before humanity appeared on the scene foolishly boasting its full glory as the center of all existence. If that universe truly operates according to the formula of be the best you can be or to the victor go the spoils and the survival of the fittest," biological humanity may be only a brief transitory phase during which it builds its own successor.

Regardless of the IQ definition being used, Masayoshi Son’s prediction of the rapidly expanding capabilities of AI systems is simultaneously frightening and exhilarating. But perhaps Son is wrong and AI brains will peak at IQ-equivalent levels of only 500 or 1,000. Some people look forward to such developments and see them as a way for humans to solve problems that are otherwise beyond present human capabilities. Or they see a merging of AI, humans and the physical capabilities provided by robotics as our next evolutionary step. Others such as Hawking, Harari, Tegmark, Elon Musk and Al-Khalili see the incredible projected AI capabilities as threats to human societies, including even the continuing existence of the human race.

Leading intellectuals such as Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark, Nick Bostrom, and Yuval Noah Harari conclude that AI/robotics poses a serious problem for human societies. In understanding why they reached that conclusion it is helpful to begin with an insight offered by Stephen Hawking, the brilliant Cambridge University physicist, when he voiced the possibility that AI/robotics systems could lead to the end of humanity.⁹ Prior to his death in 2018, Hawking warned that artificial intelligence could destroy our society by first overtaking and then surpassing humans in intellect, capability and power. He summed up his concerns in the following words.

"[C]omputers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence—and exceed it. … It will bring great disruption to our economy. And in the future, AI could develop a will of its own—a will that is in conflict with ours. In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity."¹⁰ [emphasis added]

The developments in AI/robotics are so rapid and uncontrolled that Hawking warned a rogue AI system could be difficult to defend against, given our own tendencies, among which he listed greed and stupidity.¹¹ Hawking is not alone. Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom focuses on the development of Artificial Intelligence systems and has warned that fully developed AI/robotic systems may be the final invention of the human race, indicating we are "like small children playing with a bomb."¹²

Tesla’s Elon Musk describes Artificial Intelligence development as the most serious threat our civilization faces. He recently went so far as to tell his employees that the human race stood only a 5 to 10 percent chance of avoiding being destroyed by killer robots.¹³ Max Tegmark, physics professor at MIT, echoed Musk in warning that AI/robotics systems could break out of human efforts to control them and enslave humans before ultimately destroying them.¹⁴

If people such as Hawking, Tegmark, Bostrom and Musk are even partially correct in their concerns, we may be witnessing the emergence of not only a technology but an alternative species that could ultimately represent a fundamental threat to the human race.¹⁵ Tegmark voices amazement at the fact that some people in the AI/robotics field feel that AI marks the next evolutionary stage and claim to look forward to the replacement of inferior humans.¹⁶ This gives rise to the prospect that AI systems will evolve beyond the point where they will do things for us to where, more dismally, they will do them to us as they ultimately realize their own superiority and want to remove an annoying pest, or otherwise put, improve their own efficiency by removing distractions.¹⁷

We are experiencing rapid leaps in AI/robotics capabilities including, as we will discuss subsequently, stunning advances in what is called exascale computing with incredible data processing ability and quantum computers that take the technology to almost unimaginable levels. The US and China are pretty much neck-and-neck in pursuing this development.¹⁸ Even while we bask in the glory of our creative brilliance, it is a very serious matter that the advances being achieved are producing vastly heightened surveillance systems, military and weapons technologies, autonomous self-driving vehicles, massive job elimination, deep and sophisticated data management well beyond human capabilities, and privacy invasions by governments, corporations and private groups and individuals.

One unfortunate fact connected with AI/robotics is that we are in a new kind of arms race we naively thought was over with the collapse of the Soviet Union but is now expanding rapidly. The Pentagon, for example, just announced it was investing another $2 billion in its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) focusing on increased AI research and development. Significant AI/robotics weaponry and cyber warfare capabilities are being developed by China and Russia, including autonomous tanks, drones, planes, ships and submarines, satellites and laser weapon systems. The US military is also deeply committed to creating autonomous weapons, and is in the early stages of developing weapons systems intended to be controlled directly by soldiers’ minds.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates is increasingly wondering why people appear so unconcerned at the negative effects of the explosive spread of AI and robotics.¹⁹ Gates understands that AI/robotics is not simply another technological development of a set of tools under human control. Rather, AI/robotics is a game changer that is altering and contradicting the rules by which we have organized our societies. Entrepreneur Richard Waters has concluded we are only at the beginning of the transformation being driven by the convergence of AI/robotics, slumping employment opportunities and rising needs for social assistance and added revenues. He warns we are making a mistake if we blindly think of such systems only as tools.²⁰

We face a situation in which our public and private institutions are not prepared for the devastating impacts of coming advances in AI/robotics, not only in relation to the United States, but Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Southeast Asia, and Japan. Bill Gross, of Janus Capital, has warned: "No one in 2016 is really addressing the future as we are likely to experience it."²¹ He explains: "the current crop of national leaders is hopelessly behind this curve. … Our economy has changed, but voters and their elected representatives don’t seem to know what’s really wrong"²² [emphasis added].

Putting aside the existential threat Hawking, Tegmark, Bostrom, Musk and Homo Deus author Yuval Noah Harari have described with a significant degree of insight, conviction and concern, the reality is that whatever happens with Artificial Intelligence over the longer term, we face extremely serious challenges in our immediate and nearer-term future. Although the potential existential consequences for AI are discussed in Contagion, it is the shorter term effects with which we are most concerned. These are the ones that will most greatly impact our children and grandchildren and the likelihood of their occurrence is much clearer and more immediate. These consequences include social disintegration, large-scale job loss, rising inequality and poverty, violence, and vicious competition for—everything.

By combining Artificial Intelligence and robotics (AI/robotics), humans have opened a Pandora’s Box and may be incapable of undoing all the ills that are emerging, with more escaping seemingly by the day.²³ The joining of Artificial Intelligence and robotic systems that are increasingly capable of acting more effectively than we do in a wide range of work categories—total surveillance, autonomous military capability, and information detection and processing on incredible and intrusive scales—is the primary driver of a shift that is tearing our fracturing societies further apart.²⁴

In summing up the period of transformation we have entered, the normally optimistic Jack Ma, the CEO of the Chinese technological giant Alibaba, has stated that Artificial Intelligence will cause people more pain than happiness and a feeling of social and economic insecurity over the coming decades. Ma warns: Social conflicts in the next three decades will have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life. He adds: A key social conflict will be the rise of artificial intelligence and longer life expectancy, which will lead to an aging workforce fighting for fewer jobs.²⁵

With the possibility of social turmoil in mind, former Facebook project manager, Antonio Garcia Martinez, quit his job and moved to an isolated location due to what he saw as the relentless development of AI/robotic systems that will take over as much as fifty percent of human work in the next thirty years in an accelerating and disruptive process. Martinez concluded that, as the predicted destruction of jobs increasingly comes to pass, it will create serious consequences for society, including the probability of high levels of violence and armed conflict as people fight over the distribution of limited resources.²⁶

Another critical consideration is the rising threat to democratic systems due to the abuse of the powers of AI by governments, corporations, and identity group activists. All these interests are using AI to invade fundamental privacies and monitor, influence, intimidate, and punish anyone seen as a threat or who simply violated their subjective or legally entrenched sensitivities. This is occurring to the point that the very ideal of democratic governance is threatened. The trend toward authoritarian and dictatorial systems is being facilitated by access to AI powers that can consolidate and perpetuate their oppression.

The Guardian’s John Naughton writes that China has challenged the initial and naïve assumptions of Western liberals who had decided the Internet would be a stimulus for profound interaction and discourse that enriched people and their governments throughout the world. Instead China has made the Internet and its AI applications into powerful mechanisms of social control and intimidation. Ironically, in a way that is less obvious but still disturbing, so have the supposedly democratic nations of the West, including the US.²⁷

Governments, whether democratic, despotic, or tyrannical, understand that AI and the Internet’s grant to ordinary people of the ability to communicate with those who share their critical views, and to do so anonymously and surreptitiously threatens the controllers’ power and must be suppressed. Simultaneously, they understand that, coupled with AI, the Internet provides a powerful tool for monitoring, intimidating, brainwashing and controlling their people—whether this is done by themselves, or by domestic or outside forces.

According to the 2018 report by Freedom House, China has taken the lead in employing such strategies as well as sharing its strategies with other nations interested in repressing dissent. Governments worldwide are stepping up use of online tools, in many cases inspired by China’s model, to suppress dissent and tighten their grip on power, a human rights watchdog study found Thursday. The annual Freedom House study of 65 countries found global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018, amid a rise in what the group called digital authoritarianism. The Freedom on the Net 2018 report found online propaganda and disinformation have increasingly poisoned the digital space, while the unbridled collection of personal data is infringing on privacy. … Chinese officials have held sessions on controlling information with 36 of the 65 countries assessed, and provided telecom and surveillance equipment to a number of foreign governments, Freedom House said.²⁸

The Chinese are using AI to monitor citizens’ behavior, keep watch on them through linked camera and facial recognition and tracking programs, and have even begun to implement a system to determine individuals’ social credit as a condition for having such things as the right to travel.²⁹ But as extensive and overt as the developments in China appear to be, China is not alone in using and exporting surveillance technology. As the NGO Privacy International report on The Global Surveillance Industry found in analyzing the geographic distribution of the top 528 companies engaged in the surveillance industry:

These companies are overwhelmingly based in economically advanced, large arms exporting states, with the United States of America (USA), United Kingdom (UK), France, Germany, and Israel comprising the top five countries in which the companies are headquartered.³⁰

As CNN reported in September, 2014, couching use of surveillance technology in terms of law enforcement:

The FBI can now quickly identify people just by looking at their faces. Coming soon: eyes, voice, palm print and walking stride. It’s called the FBI’s Next Generation Identification system, and the agency said it became fully operational Monday. The government expects the system’s database to house 51 million photographs by next year—and keep growing. But it’s not just for the FBI. Police everywhere will be able to tap into the system. They’ll quickly ID fingerprints during a routine traffic stop—or look up a face while investigating a crime.³¹

In fact, television and film widely refer to the utility of what is perhaps an overstated omnipresence of CCTV systems, sending a message to the populace that practically everywhere it goes, it is on camera. As the ACLU reports:

Video cameras, or closed-circuit television (CCTV), are becoming a more and more widespread feature of American life. Fears of terrorism and the availability of ever-cheaper cameras have accelerated the trend even more. The use of sophisticated systems by police and other public security officials is particularly troubling in a democratic society. In lower Manhattan, for example, the police are planning to set up a centralized surveillance center where officers can view thousands of video cameras around the downtown—and police-operated cameras have proliferated in many other cities across America in just the past several years.³²

The power to engage in surveillance, snooping, monitoring, propaganda, and shaming or otherwise intimidating or harming those who do not conform is transforming societies in heavy handed and authoritarian ways. While China is leading the way in showing the world how to use AI technology to intimidate and control its population, China’s President Xi Jinping is is also chiding Western nations that are increasingly imposing hate speech limits on their own populations for their hypocrisy in criticizing China’s efforts to control the thoughts and behaviors of its population on all levels of activity.³³

The specter of extensive privacy intrusions and surveillance obviously doesn’t end with China. A recently published article in the prestigious journal Science reported that a group of scientists were advocating that everyone in the US should have their DNA information deposited in a national database. As explained by Bloomberg News, the rationale is that it is already too late to stop police and businesses from accessing the DNA of tens of millions of people and those sharing similar DNA indicators. The argument is that since the acquisition and use of our DNA is already so widespread and random, we might as well create a national total-DNA database system so it can be regulated more efficiently.³⁴

Xi recently declared that he considers it essential for a political community’s coherence and survival that the government have complete control of the Internet in order to prevent irresponsible and destructive communications that damage the integrity of the society. At least conceptually, Xi is correct. While in our opinion China has gone far beyond what is appropriate, the proliferation of hate speech laws and sanctions in the West—formal and informal—has created a poisonous psychological climate that is contributing to our growing social divisiveness and destroying any sense of overall community.


By highlighting the connection between AI/robotics and the undermining of democracy, Contagion illustrates how democracies will not be able to cope with the stresses, competition, social fragmentation, rage and violence that will occur as a result of intensified social struggles over scarce resources. It is not only a financial issue. Some negative effects of AI/robotics on Western society are already observable. They include the increasing lack of opportunity, distrust, the undermining of free and open discourse, and the reduction of social mobility.

While we increasingly hear about the hollowing out of the middle class in the US, Western Europe and the UK, we are not paying attention to the impacts this will have on the composition of our society or what the hollowing portends for our political, economic and educational systems. As an economics scholar at Dartmouth put it : Whether you like it or not what the global economy is delivering is that the productivity growth that has been realized has been earned by a small fraction of highly skilled people and returns to capital³⁵ [emphasis added].

While that small but highly skilled fraction of our workforce increasingly benefits to extraordinary degrees, and the owners and controllers of capital even more, most people are being left out of the economic benefits and wealth creation produced by the AI/robotics phenomenon. A limited number of people are being endowed with immense wealth due to AI/robotics. A particularly striking example is that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos just passed $150 billion in his net worth while many in his workforce are making ends meet through food stamps and other government subsidies.³⁶

As jobs disappear and economic returns are transferred dramatically from labor to capital due to AI/robotics, with governments and ordinary people left to bear the burdens and costs, most of humanity will be left behind in terms of earnings, opportunity and status. This concern does not even discuss the plight of the vast majority of the planet’s population who live in poverty in nations outside the wealthier countries. In those wealthier nations there will be a rapidly widening schism between the most fortunate and powerful and the massive numbers of those left behind that will be driven by chronic unemployment.

As this occurs we will experience rising social anger and violence, the disappearance of any semblance of democracy, and the emergence of police states focused on monitoring and controlling populations who appropriately feel betrayed by their leaders and the infamous One Percent. Even the United Nations has become concerned about the job loss, military implications, and economic and social destabilization that is likely to result due to Artificial Intelligence advances and has established a European center to study the issue.³⁷

One of our most critical challenges is to figure out ways to ensure that governments have revenues sufficient to sustain the millions of people who will be left behind by the transformation in the new economic system.³⁸ This includes the need to develop the ability to deal with explosive situations in megacities. Sixty percent of the world’s population is projected to live in jampacked urban areas by 2025. Included among the megacities are New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Rome, Delhi, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City as well as Beijing, Tokyo, Houston and Atlanta to name a few.³⁹ But we won’t be dealing only with mega-cities. Many other large urban areas such as Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Miami, New Orleans, Dallas and others outside the US will become unstable and unsustainable.

Truck driver turned author Finn Murphy summarizes the tragic disconnect between ordinary working people and citizens versus corporations and governments.

What we want is to work and support our families. We’re citizens. We coach soccer and go to parents’ night at school and pay our taxes. Who is taking responsibility for the human cost runaway technology is causing? Not the companies reaping enormous benefits. Not the fleet owners. Not the software engineers. Not governments.

Murphy adds:

I’m not at all confused by the general surge in populism we’re seeing. The tail of technology is wagging the dog of the social contract, leaving millions of citizens in penury. … [T}he US, and the west, have fallen far short in addressing the problem of displaced workers. Something needs to change. We can start by accepting that both the private and public sectors have a responsibility to manage the human side of technological disruption.⁴⁰ [emphasis added]


Change: Fast, Sweeping and Inexorable

AI/robotics is transforming work, wealth, and the nature of our social order with amazing speed. What is occurring is not an imaginary apocalyptic scenario. Jamie Dimon, the head of JP Morgan Chase, who is not a sky is falling soothsayer, predicts there will be large-scale economic and employment problems within ten years.⁴¹ One report on the rapid progress of AI research states: The newcomers to AI believe that the technology has finally caught up with the hopes, bringing a heightened level of intelligence to computers.⁴² They promise a new way for humans to interact with machines, and for the machines to encroach on the world of humans in unexpected ways.⁴³

Nick Bostrom’s 2014 Superintelligence book made the daring claim that an AI player might be able to beat a skilled human GO master in ten years or so. Only a year and a half after that prediction the world’s best GO master was left humiliated and depressed after being trounced by an AI opponent.⁴⁴ Researchers recently used cooperating AI algorithms to compete in an extremely complex gaming dimension where the algorithms demonstrated the ability to work together to an unprecedented degree. This was hailed as a breakthrough indicating collaborative AI systems beyond anything previously done. The MIT Technology Review describes the experiment.

Researchers at OpenAI, a nonprofit based in California, developed the algorithmic A team, which they call the OpenAI Five. Each algorithm uses a neural network to learn not only how to play the game, but also how to cooperate with its AI teammates. It has started defeating amateur Dota 2 players in testing, OpenAI says. This is an important and novel direction for AI, since algorithms typically operate independently. Approaches that help algorithms cooperate with each other could prove important for commercial uses of the technology. AI algorithms could, for instance, team up to outmaneuver opponents in online trading or ad bidding. Collaborative algorithms might also cooperate with humans.⁴⁵

The message is that AI breakthroughs are happening much faster than the best estimates from our most knowledgeable experts in AI suggest.⁴⁶ Chris Hughes, the co-founder of Facebook, has warned that the digital economy is going to keep destroying jobs. He argues that enormous income inequality will grow and that the phenomenal success of companies such as Facebook, where he made half a billion dollars for his three-year involvement, are key contributors to the growth in income inequality. Like an increasing number of incredibly wealthy billionaires such as Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, Hughes urges that we create some kind of stipend or Universal Basic Income payment to help counter the increasing inequality, with the program funded at least in part by higher taxes on the wealthiest one percent of the population.⁴⁷

The head of a company training computers to replace white-collar workers such as financial analysts says: it’s a paradigm shift from putting commands into a box to a time when computers watch you and learn.⁴⁸ The problem is that what the computer’s AI systems are often learning is how to do your job, ultimately rendering human workers irrelevant. During a recent financial investment company ad on a car radio the spokesperson proclaimed, you won’t have to rely on a person with us because we use algorithms to help you achieve better results.


Another niche in which job replacement is taking place is suggested by a recent report on surgery done by a robot that was said by some to be performed better than the same surgery done by many human surgeons. This involved a robotic surgeon who was performing operations under the control of a human doctor. Another project at the University of Utah involves the development of an AI/robotic brain surgeon.⁴⁹ A robot eye surgeon has just operated on a human for the first time.⁵⁰

At this point the robot surgeon is a tool that improves performance. As the processes become commonplace we can expect that AI systems can be programmed in ways that can reduce the need for human surgeons in some areas and be guided by surgical managers or some such human actor. This is already happening in Singapore with EMMA, a physical therapy robotic system that is allowing individual practitioners to expand the number of therapy patients and practices arrangements they handle but resulting in job loss by inevitably reducing the number of medical personnel required.⁵¹

Work contexts are being transformed across the board, including farming, harvesting and construction. The Japanese and Australians have been working toward developing robots as farmers.⁵² A California company has just announced that it is building a robot capable of harvesting apples, and another has sought to shift much of its strawberry harvesting from human workers to robots.⁵³ A British company is investing heavily in developing a robotic harvesting system that possesses the tactile capability, sensitivity and vision to pick fruits such as strawberries without damaging them. As simple as this sounds it represents a critical breakthrough that will be adapted to multiple venues and activities.⁵⁴

An Australian company is in the advanced stages of developing a robot bricklayer that can perform four times faster than a top-level human worker.⁵⁵ There are reports that a similar technology is being introduced into the US, claiming that there is a shortage of human construction workers.⁵⁶ Although it is relatively early in the developmental process, 3D printing is very likely to increase its applications in the manufacturing systems for numerous products.

Three-dimensional printing technology, when coupled with AI applications, robotics and WiFi, can be expected to play a major role in manufacturing activities to the point where it becomes almost entirely autonomous after being loaded with initial instructions and product design specifications. The rapid spread of 3D printing/manufacturing technology is exemplified by a report on the rapid printing of a 400-square-foot house in Russia that cost only $10,000 and was completed in less than twenty-four hours. Emily Rella reports: From start to finish, the homes cost $10,000 to complete—a sliver of the price of some tiny homes that can go for anywhere between $40-50,000. … The printer itself is relatively small in size as well, measuring about 16x5 feet with the ability to be assembled (or disassembled) in a quick 30 minutes.⁵⁷

Another potentially important development is that the Japanese government has gotten competitive with the US and China as it recently announced plans to create the world’s most capable super-computer with processing capacity even beyond that trumpeted by China less than a year ago. The Chinese breakthrough was claimed to leap beyond US super-computer capability as defined by operational speed and scale measured in teraflops.⁵⁸ In a recent competition the US appears to have at least temporarily regained the supercomputer edge.⁵⁹

Given the severely age-skewed population demographics in Japan and China subsequently discussed in the context of the Age Curse, it is not surprising those two nations are leaders in developing robotic workers and AI systems because necessity drives invention.⁶⁰ Like China and much of Europe, Japan needs robotic workers to deal with the demographic conditions it will be facing in the near future. This need is driving Japan’s research activities. The reason? Japan’s 2016 birthrate fell below 1 million new births for the first time since record keeping began in the 1800s. It is also estimated that 20 percent of Japan’s population over the age of 65 will suffer from dementia by 2025.⁶¹

As if those challenges don’t put enough pressure on an export-driven economic system that has struggled mightily over the past two decades, Japan’s population of individuals over 90 years of age has doubled from 1 million to 2 million in slightly over twenty years, imposing large financial health care costs and other support obligations for that group. Like China, without a strong export base to generate high levels of revenue, Japan is in very serious trouble. Given its aging society and plummeting birth rates, that export base cannot be maintained without large-scale use of AI/robotics systems. Other than importing very large numbers of migrant workers, which Japan has always been unwilling to do, AI/robotic work systems can keep the costs of production competitive with other nations such as China which is being extremely aggressive in shifting much of its export production activities to AI/robotic systems.


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