09 January 2023

Wasted and Useful Lives, or why I fear AI

AI scares me. Not because it will result in “Skynet", though that is a distinct possibility. My real fear is the dumbing down of humanity. Sure, plenty of humanity is already there, but various cultures value education and knowledge, and we perceive those cultures as being full of naturally smart people. We also know that as female literacy and education levels increase, birth rates decrease, reducing the strain on limited natural resources.  

In 1895, H.G. Wells showed us a future hundreds of thousands of years from now. Little did he know that his envisioned future may be mere years or decades away. Or will we have Eloi and Morlocks? What I fear from AI is the dumbing down of humanity. The coming generations of sheep, grazing on the green, green grass of an AI-managed farm.  


Societies, like militaries, need a good “NCO Corps”, the good junior to middle managers who are becoming “experts” and who will, in the fullness of time, be those that will provide and contribute to effective decision-making. How do we create and nurture the experts? By having cohorts of junior and mid-level professionals (Morlocks?) engaged in constant learning.  


I remember sitting at lunch with two senior partners of an accounting firm. They were lamenting how “the kids of today”, referring to the young accountants in the firm, just didn't have the same work ethic or capabilities as their generation. I asked them how many of their generation were still with the firm, or even still in the profession. After a moment of silence, I said to them, “Your generation was no different from this one. Only the two of you, and maybe a handful of others from your early years, are still with the firm, or even still in the accounting industry.” 


My point was that an intake of fifty young accountants (or risk managers, contact centre professionals, human resource specialists, or any other profession) will become thirty mid-level professionals, and eventually will narrow down to five or so real experts. This is natural. Not everyone becomes an expert, and not everyone stays in the same profession, even more so today. 


So how does this relate to AI, and why it scares me? 


Simply put, as AI displaces jobs, it will not be displacing (initially) the experts. It will be displacing the junior-level workers, the very ones who need to go through years of learning through doing. Remove, or dramatically shrink, the input side of the path to professional excellence, and there will be fewer potential future experts.  


Now push AI even further back in the “intellectual supply chain”, and not only will there be fewer jobs to create future experts, but there will also be fewer individuals capable of even entering the supply chain. For example, AI today will write students’ essays for them. Yet, the purpose of the essay or report is not to produce it, but to grow the thinking processes that enable students to question and formulate coherent thoughts.  


So, with essays and term papers being generated by an AI system, used by a student who knows how to use Google but cannot rationally consider the veracity of someone's “own research” via Youtube, I envision a world in which the education system(s) produce people who cannot think, but whose papers look and sound well thought out. 


And then, will we require AI engines to identify the AI-generated term papers and assignments turned in by internet-proficient (but otherwise unskilled and uneducated) people. 


Some will point out that when the lightbulb was invented, whale hunting for lamp oil was a profession that disappeared. Automobiles displaced horses. Our mobile phones have displaced complete families of appliances. Automation has put manual factory labour out of work, and the move away from coal-fired power has destroyed (almost) the coal mining sector. 

And in each of those cases, people and societies have adapted. And society will adapt to the ubiquity of AI. New skills were required, and new professions opened up; many starved for skilled labour until enough people took the plunge and learned new trades.  


That process has continued throughout the past couple of centuries, and we take it as the norm for social and economic development. 


Today, AI is core to enabling the delivery of billions of packages, all scheduled to arrive at particular times and across millions of locations, without AI. AI is finding new ways to identify cancer and other medical conditions, faster and with fewer errors. AI is improving our lives; there is no doubt about that. This revolution is both performing jobs that could not otherwise be accomplished, and displacing jobs.

But what happens when the “new jobs” are filled by machines (not robots, though those will certainly have a continuing impact) and there are no “new jobs” for people to retain and reskill into? What happens when those professions that require a refresh of the expert level, cannot find the experienced middle and junior people who will grow into those jobs? 


I suspect that we will need to move confirmation of students' ability from the essay to the exam. And yet, there certainly will be, and already is, objection to the use of exams to measure student advancement. 


Or, should we embrace a future of leisure, relying on a “universal income” that will be plenty for anyone other than the strivers and the wannabe billionaires? The good news is that there will always be those people, who will do anything for the trappings that show their superiority (real or imagined). 


There will always be artists, poets, authors, painters, and those that like to walk in the fields and woods. Freeing people through automation was a dream, and freeing them through AI is a continuation of that dream. We also need to value the people who will want to sit and talk to each other, and those that will not want to do that.  


In H.G. Wells's 1895 novel The Time Machine, two races remain from the human race; the Eloi and the Morlock. The Eloi are the poets, the writer and artists, those walking through the forests and sitting by the sea. The Morlocks are the residual professionals and individuals striving for a “better life”. Yet in his novel, the Morlocks are the “evil”, and the Eloi are the “good". Or are they? 


Will AI further a dumbed-down race of humans, unable to make the choice of which life they want? Or will AI truly free humanity from toil and let us choose our own definitions? Remove the requirement to work simply to live, and we can each choose a “wasted” or “useful” life. But, But, the real question will remain, which is which? 

Thank you, Kliban, for the fine cartoon. I notice he does not say which is which. You choose.

NB: I use Grammarly, not quite AI, to radically improve my otherwise horrendous spelling and sometimes grammar. I'm not above a bit of automated assistance.


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