Remember the folktale of John Henry, that trial by combat pitting human grit and determination against the artificial power and relentlessness of a machine, which was really a 19th century allegory for the common worker’s fight against obsolescence?
If you don’t, Johnny Cash can catch you up:
In his later years, Andrew Carnegie used his vast wealth for charitable works and to clone dinosaurs for the purpose of busting unions.
Luckily, several workers’ rights laws have passed since the dawn of the industrial revolution. A lot of time has passed, too. But history, as it is wont to do, repeats itself. And sometimes it even evolves.
That first battle of human vs. machine wasn’t as much John Henry’s muscles vs. the steam hammer’s steel as it was human brawn vs. human brain. Then computer scientists, such as Alan Turing, developed machines that employ algorithms, allowing Artificial Intelligence to think more like humans, but better.
So now, regular workers are facing a new battle, one between their fleshy grey matter and computers' silicon super processors, designed over 70 years to think faster and better. Obsolescence again is on the line.
And A.I. is no longer a distant threat that wants to destroy all humans. It's integrated into every part of our lives and growing exponentially.
Smartphone-based personal assistants already navigate our days, our cars will soon drive themselves (the recent Tesla tragedy notwithstanding), and manufacturers plan for a future where collaborative robots perform all the menial, repetitive tasks no one on the production line wants anyways (according to unbiased robot companies).
Those are some "Game of Thrones"-like odds stacked against the good ol' middle class, the House Stark of America, with the AI developing companies of course being House Lannister, with Mark Zuckerberg of course playing Ramsay Bolton.
Is it too late for a trial by combat?
As far as brain games go, AI's been kicking our asses for five years. In 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer terminated the Joe DiMaggio of Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings, who had won 74 games in a row against human competitors. Watson defeated the computer software engineer by $53,147.
After the crushing defeat, the always affable Jennings wrote about his experience for Slate:
Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It's very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it's confident about an answer. So trivia isn’t exactly that fair of a contest, as Watson had nearly instantaneous access to the breadth of human knowledge, devoid of the human anxiety and adrenaline that could cause a person to hesitate or misspeak.
What about Go, an incredibly complex 2,500-year-old board game created by the Chinese? It's like backgammon or chess, but way more difficult.
Allegedly, there are more potential positions of white and black stones on the board than atoms in the universe (>10^80), although that just sounds like something a jerky mathematician said because there's no way to verify it.
Google’s software engineers wanted to test DeepMind AI, so they created AlphaGo to challenge the game's world champion Lee Sedol in March. It won, 4-1, and poor Sedol can't say he's the best in the world at anything anymore.
The brain has a left and a right side, though. So we can’t beat ‘em with facts and numbers. Who cares? Let’s see how those damn robots and cloud computers do in the arts.
To do this, just go to Botpoet.com and figure out if the random poem was written by some depressed English dude or a computer program. It’s the Turing test that also gives you flashbacks to the worst part of High School English. It’s also incredibly difficult to get it right.
Google’s AI network, using the open-source Deep Dream code, can also create psychedelic paintings the team calls “inception-isms,” after the Christopher Nolan film.
After being fed images, the program interprets what it sees, and can slightly alter it, much like the Photoshop filters nobody seriously uses.
Or if the input is random noise, this comes out:
Google auctioned off several of the pieces in San Francisco and raised $84,000. That the equivalent of two years in art school. Do you know how many Frappuccinos an art school grad has to pour to pay that student loan back?
Music. At least we have music, right?
Sorry. The Google Magenta project released an AI-generated 90-second melody. Listen to it here.
In ten years, Kanye West will be interrupting its Grammy speech, a speech which no doubt be more heartfelt and humble than anything Kanye has ever said.
Do We Even Stand a Chance?
Most people need the calculator app on their phone just to figure out an 18% tip for their Reuben sandwich and peach tea at lunch. In the same time, your company’s ERP software can figure out how much the entire company is spending on “business” lunches, compare it to last year, create a model for the next five years, and alert your finance department that you spend twice as much on your corporate card than the last person who had your position.
OK, so maybe it can’t yet. I don’t know. But if some penny-pinching exec reads this, they’re probably emailing their accounting department to see if it’s possible. Because with the way AI is growing, anything is possible.
We write about it almost every day, whether it’s GE’s Predix platform going all Nostradamus on industrial equipment, or the new fleet of automated guided vehicles scurrying around warehouses. It’s always getting better, always getting faster.
Using carbon nanotubes stacked in 3D structures, processing could increase 1,000 times what it is today, theorizes one of the chip’s designer, Max Shulaker, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at Stanford University in California.
“Artificial intelligence has the potential to evolve faster than the human race,” said Stephen Hawking recently in an interview with Larry King.
Last summer, Hawking and the rest of the Illuminati’s Geek Squad—including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak—warned the world in an open letter (also signed by 1,000 AI researchers) not to integrate the technology into the global military industrial complex. Because Terminator and Agent Smith.
“Once machines reach the critical stage of being able to evolve themselves, we cannot predict whether their goals will be the same as ours," Hawking concludes.
Meanwhile, 10 million self-driving cars are predicted to be on the road by 2020, according to Business Insider.
Every major car manufacturer has big plans for the technology. Google’s self-driving car crashed only once so far on the road. I know humans that have done that twice in a week. It will be here before you know it, and if AI truly wanted to take over, that would be the way to do it.
Also, AI is in your smart phone, and could theoretically access several Internet of Things-connected devices. Skynet wouldn’t need to launch nukes to take over. It could just turn off our air conditioning until we surrender, or shut down our supply chains so we couldn’t get our food delivered on self-driving trucks.
Do you know how long it takes to grow tomatoes? Like 80 days. Forget that.
So if you’re about what a world would look like where AI is in charge, don’t. You’re living in it. What we should all worry about is where to go from here.
The railroad workers could find jobs in the manufacturing plants. Well, that’s where AI excels. Take a look at Toyota Forklifts, which developed TED (Toyota Electronic Diagnosis) with Exsys Inc. The AI program deciphers from the error code and model number what’s wrong with the equipment, and then shows step-by-step instructions on how to fix it.
Put that into a robot technician and you won’t even need humans in warehouse anymore for maintenance.
Let’s not even touch upon how 3D printing fully functional robots is a thing. They are at the amoeba stage now, but Hawking did say how fast AI evolves. In twenty years, Kinkos could be churning out worker bots to fill in for you when you take a sick day, and a year after that, you’re complaining to the AI bot at the unemployment office that you did look for five jobs this week. But then it accesses your search history and knows you’re lying. You were imprisoned in a time suck taking horoscope quizzes on Facebook. (Curse you, Zuckerberg, you sadistic monster!)
This would never happen right?
A grim Obama Administration report says there's an 83% chance workers earning under $20 an hour in 2010 will get replaced by a machine. For workers making $40 an hour, it's a 31%. (Hey, the guy did promise change.)
But look on the bright side.
In his battle with the machines, John Henry worked until he died. The big difference is that when we die, there probably won’t even be any jobs to work. And some rich jerk like Andrew Carnegie will get richer. As usual.