Editorial: Automate or die
Technology may soon transform our lives and our businesses – again.
By Patrick Flannery
Did you watch Black Mirror on Netflix? God, I loved that series. I’ve always been a total nerd for science fiction and those episodes were the finest example of the genre since Twilight Zone. Science fiction in its purest form is about taking one advancement in science or technology and imagining what the effects will be on a future society, or maybe just one person.
Black Mirror nails that – most of the episodes are about the ramifications of just one technology: brain implants that allow people to interface with computers directly. From that one idea you get the possibility of people recording and displaying their memories on screens; carrying the personalities of other people around in their heads (or in stuffed animals); or overlaying virtual reality to convince soldiers their enemies are monsters or children that there’s no evil in the world or criminals that they are in an elaborate torture scenario. But one Black Mirror episode deals obliquely with artificial intelligence and how society might look in decades to come when machines become better at just about anything we can do.
Essentially, the show depicts a world where there are only two jobs left: riding a stationary bike to produce electricity (to power the machines that do everything else) and being a contestant in a reality talent show. People ride bikes all day every day hoping to one day be selected to appear on the show. In between they live in tiny bachelor apartments where every night they are forced to…you guessed it…watch the show. There’s no money, only merit points for doing what the system wants and demerit points for “bad” behaviour (like not watching the show).
Far-fetched? Sure. But it follows the ideas of a lot of serious thinkers who wonder what the end point is for our economy in a world where AI and robotics are quickly approaching human capabilities in unexpected areas.
Take a look around your shop. Any of the physical tasks happening are within the capabilities of machines using existing technology. What your workers have that machines do not is the ability to understand the job they are doing and the flexibility to adapt to changing and variable conditions to achieve it. So it’s their brains, not their bodies that are valuable to your process.
A while ago I was at a magazine conference and the presenter passed around a corporate press release that had been written by a software program. It was indistinguishable from one I might receive from a human writer. Admittedly, writing press releases is a low bar but it showed that technology has advanced to the point where at least some functions formerly considered the sole domain of a human mind can be achieved by artificial intelligence.
If an AI can be taught to understand window and door manufacturing and linked to machinery and robotics optimized for the task, where does that leave human workers? And if an AI can be taught to understand logistics and production planning, where does that leave the manager? If it can learn the principles of window design, what is left for an engineer to do?
And if AI and robotics take jobs away from some appreciable percentage of the population, who is going buy windows and doors?
The world faced a lot of these questions 200 years ago in the first industrial revolution and a lot of people find optimism in the fact that people were able to adapt and civilization did not collapse. Indeed, new jobs were created in fields that no one could have imagined even existing at the time, such as software engineers. It’s probably impossible to know if something similar could take place in a world where AI is better at everything. But regardless, I think the future belongs to those of us who get very familiar with automation, adopt it early and position ourselves to be the beneficiaries rather than the victims.