Home » Machine Economy » Automation — both in its cyber and robotics incarnations — is not going away

Automation — both in its cyber and robotics incarnations — is not going away

Daniel Suarez gave an insightful talk at TED, some of his key points impacting the Robot Economy, or as he terms it, the automation age are extracted below:

Autonomous drones and cars aren’t really where most of the automation is occurring. They’re just the physical manifestation of a much larger trend — the tip of a technological iceberg passing beyond humanity’s bow, and one that we’re rightly uneasy about.

What we’re concerned about is an automation revolution – every bit as transformational as the industrial revolution before it. The agent of this change is narrow AI software, a tool that can be leveraged to raise individual human whim to economies of scale. Technology is, after all, merely the physical manifestation of the human will, and when it comes to AI agents, that human can be digitally magnified a billion-fold. Whether you’re a high-frequency Wall Street trader, a malware author, a medical researcher, a marketer, an astronomer, a dictator or a drone builder, narrow AI is the workhorse of the automation age. It is narrow AI software that imbues silicon with agency. And such narrow AI agents are increasingly everywhere in our society — a situation that risks tilting centuries-old human social arrangements on their head.

Innumerable and relatively invisible software agents — already manage broad swaths of human society as stand-ins for human actors. That transition has gone almost unnoticed. Software algorithms now handle our stock market trading, logistics, electrical power grid management, banking, communications, medical diagnosis, mapping analytics and much more. The human logic behind such decision-making has been codified into algorithms that greatly increase speed and efficiency.

That’s why there’s no turning back.

We are at the dawn of an Automation Age, and narrow (or weak) AI software agents are its hallmark. Narrow AI is distinctly different from the sort of human-level (or strong) AI we know from science fiction. Your narrow AI-powered GPS unit doesn’t contemplate the why of your proposed trip to Reseda. It simply creates the most efficient route to get there.

That efficiency is marvelous when it instantly delivers search results or alerts you to fraudulent use of your credit card, but not so marvelous when it makes widespread surveillance not only practical but downright cost-effective.

What will be the outcome for human society as it competes with sub-Singularity AI? That’s what the philosophers, technologists, sociologists, engineers, artists, politicians, activists, economists and many more must ponder and debate in coming years.

Automation — both in its cyber and robotics incarnations — is not going away. It is now a permanent fixture of our civilization. And even if modern industrial society were to break down, the survivors would be frantically working to get their computer networks up and running again as soon as possible. Their robots, too. Our machines are simply that useful.  No — our narrow AI friends are here to stay.

Those societies that attempt to resist progress, rejecting narrow AI automation, will be at a competitive disadvantage against those who successfully use it. On the other hand, those societies that implement automation without careful consideration of the consequences will be building an ecosystem for technological domination by the very few — because the same dynamic by which AI’s increase productivity through centralized control can be used to undermine the checks and balances of democratic social systems.

But that is the charge of our times: To compete in the future we must learn to ingest increasing levels of software automation into the corpus of democratic life without fundamentally distorting the body politic. Previous generations had their challenges, and this appears to be ours.

And while we humans might not process facts with the swift precision of an optimized algorithm, one thing at which we excel is adaptation. And the sooner we understand the challenge presented to us by the automation age, the sooner we can start adapting to it.

One TED talk by Daniel on Drones can be seen here.

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