Yes, and very much so, according to participants at a recent Bangkok seminar on the subject. What should we do about it, then? The answer is not that clear, simply because nobody knows for sure how far and how fast the technology will go.
We don’t need knowledge of rocket science to be alarmed. Self-driving cars will put human cabbies and chauffeurs out of a job. We journalists face an even more immediate threat, with algorithms already writing news stories from information gathered online.
The seminar also showcased robots that can care for elderly patients, able to inform their children or doctors if, for example, their charges refuse to take their pills. Other robots can serve food and drinks and take orders at restaurants. They can work on flights as well, rendering stewards and stewardesses redundant.
Basically, almost every single human job is threatened, experts at the seminar confirmed. Robotic nurses can become doctors in no time. Will automatons replace chefs in the kitchen someday? You bet. The “ghost in the machine” reporters can easily become editors, writing analyses with unrivalled accuracy and objectivity.
Artificial intelligence is all around us already. The autopilot controls your aircraft on takeoff and on landing, the human pilots merely bystanders monitoring the machines. Car factories have long since swapped humans for robotic precision, efficiency and productivity. Google knows what you are looking for even before you finish the thought you were typing. Computers have beaten the world’s best chess players. Last but not least, most of us are glued to our very own small piece of AI for large parts of the day.
And these are just the primitive beginnings. Artificial intelligence is sweeping across our world in more and more forms and at many levels.
One of the scariest things about the AI revolution is that its capabilities are being updated all the time, meaning yesterday’s marvels are quickly becoming routine and “invisible”. Simply put, robots taking our orders at restaurants will no longer be considered artificially intelligent once every child’s doll can do the same and more.
It’s probably better to focus solely on the short term and let future generations worry about, say, whether the world should have its first robot prime minister or president. But while human politicians are safe for now, already under threat are insurance underwriters, financial analysts, bank employees, journalists, cab drivers, farm and factory workers, inventory managers and stock handlers.
Even movie stars aren’t safe. How? AI has already “resurrected” dead actors like Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher, in the film “Rogue One”. As it advances, it will generate longer scenes with beloved stars of the past, making it harder and harder for new actors and actresses to break into the spotlight.
It will feel good at the beginning, one participant at the seminar said. Artificially intelligent labour will initially help solve the problem of manpower shortages. AI in the filmmaking industry will be an audience-pleasing moneymaker. And so on. The various illusions of convenience will then lure humans into speeding up their own downfall. It will be like eating delicious but unhealthy food that clogs our arteries. We won’t realise the danger until it’s too late.
None of the participants said what we should do to prepare ourselves for the day when AI jumps from this primitive stage to something more sophisticated. The closest they came was a vague “Humans need to adapt themselves”. Of course, nobody said how. What can we do that is superior to what a truly smart computer or machine would be capable of? Right now we still can compose better songs and write better books, but that’s only because AI is still in its diapers.
However, maybe we don’t have so much to worry about. Going with the flow – and channelling it – has always been a key strength of humankind. Moreover, the seminar tackled the issue of job losses with an unspoken assumption that money would remain just as important when AI does much of the work. Such an assumption might be misguided. Maybe joblessness won’t be that bad, as money comes to play less of a role in our lives when AI takes over key tasks in great numbers and requires no salary.
There’s another potential outcome worth considering. Perhaps we humans ourselves qualify as high-form artificial intelligence, a flesh-and-blood operating system equipped with complex sensory features that produce feelings, emotions and thus self-awareness, reproducing its own AI that one day may become smarter than itself and thus be a cause for worry?