There’s a lot of fear surrounding artificial intelligence these days and that fear is warranted—in part. Jobs will increasingly be replaced by highly capable robots. But human intelligence—the thoughtfulness and creativity of a personal mind—will always remain invaluable and sought after.
Ancient Technologies and Their Impact
Don’t simply look to the industrial revolution for analogical precedent. Humanity has always maintained a certain tension between technologically aided activities and those performed by humans alone. Consider the simplest kinds of assistance humans enjoyed even thousands of years ago.
In the ancient world, animals and ingenious contraptions assisted in the pressing of olives for oil, the transportation of individuals and even groups of people, and the building of massive architectural structures.
The Fears of Hard-Working People
One can imagine even then, that hard-working people feared that the machines, and the introduction of organized labor and machinery threatened past ways of life.
Certainly things changed. But no one ceased to walk because of horsepower innovation. Ordinary human bipedal transportation has continued to be an enjoyable, and productive form of mobility. Handcrafted works have continued to be valued despite machine-enabled productivity. And mechanical innovations—in ancient or industrial times—did not remain in the hands of a few wealthy individuals or corporations.
The Upside of Innovation
The same innovations that generated wealth for governments and organizations of all kinds, made their way into homes and privately owned operations for greater ease and increased wealth. Farms were expanded through mechanical devices and horsepower or ox-power, and households were run more efficiently.
The difference between then and now, is that we aren’t talking merely about about magnifying human braun—increasing the speed of productivity and improving the quality of products on massive scales. We’re talking about human aided intelligence, and even independent intelligence, able to operate autonomously. Machines are being taught to think and learn. Eventually machines will make decisions independently of humans.
While job displacement is the first major concern on the horizon, this latter point on autonomy is a further issue that requires much debate. But the fear factor related to machine assistance, improving the lives of people everywhere, should be distinguished from machine autonomy which threatens the same.
From Simple to Complex Advances
Today we are looking at the value of human intelligence in contrast to what has already arisen in machine intelligence, and what’s on the way.
For decades in some measure, machines have aided human intelligence. More primitively, calculators improved the accuracy of computational work. More recently, desktop computers have made it possible for individuals to run entire multimillion dollar firms from very small offices. Today, businesspeople around the globe travel and maintain frenetic schedules using smartphones, often as their primary device.
The Musician’s Model
Machines have long aided in music production. Music is particularly illustrative here because, as an art form it has been dominated by human composition and development. Consider the case of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) and drum machines, popularized in the 1980s.
The mechanical sounding timbres and rhythms of electronic music even became part of its charm and contributed greatly to emerging urban sounds and chart-breaking hits. Rap and hiphop, and virtually every major pop genre seized on the opportunity to introduce the innovations of machines to albums and live performances. That is a positive example of how forward-thinking innovators have risen above the threats of obsolescence.
And none of it made old-fashioned instruments outdated. If anything, machine-aided music provided enough of a competitive platform for new music genres that the very addition of acoustic guitars or drums to tracks made such contributions seem fresh and vital.
Freedom from Old Structures
Even independent record labels emerged as a result of new media and technology. Rather than continuing to sell-out to major labels who earned a lion’s share of the artist’s revenues, musical entrepreneurs increasingly broke free of that cycle, spreading the wealth around.
It was human intelligence behind the application of new technologies that was the difference maker. As much as it is true that nefarious purposes have been contrived to oppress individuals with technology, it has often been the case that technologies have aided people in freeing themselves from that same fate. This is why competition on all levels is important.
Focus on Productivity and Quality
There’s a well worn adage that the ends don’t justify the means. This is often said to prevent people from doing something unethical in order to accomplish something good, resulting in a continuing moral dilemma. As long as we realize that improved productivity is often good and not unethical, we can embrace new means—new ways of getting more done, and achieving greater levels of excellence.
From a jobs perspective it’s true that many jobs will be displaced by AI. However, welcoming innovations will only mean that newer jobs with greater capacity will emerge. If my goal is simply to use a mechanical plow in a field, then I will be threatened by automated machinery that replaces the old plow. But if my goal is to plow more fields in one day, and with greater efficiency provide better products for my customers, the new way will become my preferred way.
This doesn’t answer the question of whether artificial intelligence will one day take over the world and rule humanity. That’s a question for another article. On the question of jobs however, it seems evident that those willing to embrace new technologies will have a greater hope of contributing to the new economy.
See also the article, Market Highlight: Artificial Intelligence, for broad details about the emerging horizontal market and where the opportunities are arising.