• “Let’s Just Stay Home – Part II” -

    Just when our faithful readers were about to label me a half-crazed paranoid pessimist, I opened the Sunday Review section of last Sunday’s (6/24/2017) New York Times. Shop-lifting the very same hypothesis that I was about to perpetrate upon unsuspecting Rikaroo followers in my next post (great minds and paranoid ones do apparently think alike), Kai-Fu Lee, CEO of Sinovation Ventures and President of its Artificial Intelligence Institute, claims that technology will lead to vast inequality and instability.   

    Mr. Lee (mirroring me, no doubt) predicts that AI will decimate the job market as companies invest in robotic devices to replace human labor; but more importantly, that these same companies will be the only ones with sufficient resources to invest in the emerging AI technologies. “We are thus facing two developments that do not sit easily together: enormous wealth concentrated in relatively few hands and enormous numbers of people out of work.  What is to be done?”

    Mr. Lee (and coincidentally, my co-founder, Kathleen Wilson) take more optimistic views than I currently do (blame it on my Austro-Hungarian side). First, Lee’s hope:

    “Part of the answer will involve educating or retraining people in tasks A.I. tools aren’t good at. Artificial intelligence is poorly suited for jobs involving creativity, planning and “cross-domain” thinking — for example, the work of a trial lawyer. But these skills are typically required by high-paying jobs that may be hard to retrain displaced workers to do. More promising are lower-paying jobs involving the “people skills” that A.I. lacks: social workers, bartenders, concierges — professions requiring nuanced human interaction. But here, too, there is a problem: How many bartenders does a society really need?

    “The solution to the problem of mass unemployment, I suspect, will involve “service jobs of love.” These are jobs that A.I. cannot do, that society needs and that give people a sense of purpose. Examples include accompanying an older person to visit a doctor, mentoring at an orphanage and serving as a sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous — or, potentially soon, Virtual Reality Anonymous (for those addicted to their parallel lives in computer-generated simulations). The volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of the future.

    “Other volunteer jobs may be higher-paying and professional, such as compassionate medical service providers who serve as the “human interface” for A.I. programs that diagnose cancer. In all cases, people will be able to choose to work fewer hours than they do now.

    “One way or another, we are going to have to start thinking about how to minimize the looming A.I.-fueled gap between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between nations. Or, to put the matter more optimistically: A.I. is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink economic inequality on a global scale. These challenges are too far-ranging in their effects for any nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.”

    And my co-founder, Kathleen Wilson, agrees:

    “…after discussing the downsides of AI, he (Lee) goes on to suggest some potential options for dealing with the coming role of AI in society in terms of future jobs. For example, some of his ideas about the things AI is not good at – creativity, cross-domain thinking, empathy, compassion, etc. – are the things we’ve talked about that might be encouraged and developed now in children in terms of helping foster a generation better prepared to use these kinds of talents to be the artists of the future … after people are made aware of the forces afoot causing them to just stay home, maybe we should find some ways to encourage them to not just stay home … but to unplug, to get out, to connect directly with others, face to face, to live their lives in the real world, for the sake of humanity, their sanity and their children’s futures.”

    I suppose that my darker vision of things aligns more closely to Forster’s 1909 science fiction world…

    Even accounting for a 21st century “welfare” program supporting the mass of displaced workers, there’s bound to be a lot of people with limited financial resources and a lot of spare time. And social media companies will undoubtedly view this as a target-rich environment—lots of eyeballs to aggregate. Because it’s in their financial interest to find new ways to monetize human connection; it’s considered merely “good business” to take resources that were once free (air, water, conversation) and find ways to make money from them. Everything is “content.”

    As much as our tech revolution has democratized communication and improved our health and education systems, this same innovation is swiping jobs, erasing our middle class, and fracturing social communities. AI will impact the lower economic segment of our society, as limited income will encourage audiences to find the cheapest forms of entertainment–on their home computer, and/or their 65-inch flat-screen “smart” TV. Why wade through traffic, lines, expensive tickets and popcorn-strewn theaters when they can entertain themselves far more reasonably at home?  

    Dampening the desire to venture out is a media-driven, societal cultivation of fear.  TV and social media constantly remind us that the world is unpredictable, especially at public gatherings (movie theaters in Colorado; concerts in Manchester, Paris; bridges in London; nigh clubs in Florida).

    We aren’t there yet, but my guess is that we’re not far from the world E. M. Forster predicted in “The Machine Stops,” in which even face-to-face visits between mother and son are fraught with rebellion and danger. There may be a tendency in all of us, as we age, to look back wistfully to the “old days” and predict an equally-powerful fear of a de-humanized future; but scientific advances do come at a cost—elements of our culture that get lost in the shuffle. The AI revolution, combining convenience, economy, laziness and the PR power of fear will encourage us to just stay home and watch TV. It may be that we are gaining far more than we lose; but I worry that most of us won’t even realize what’s disappeared. 

    Stay tuned (at home, in your comfy chairs) for Part Three, in which I make wild observations (and a few predictions) about how the entertainment industry is adapting to these vast technological forces….