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Artificial Intelligence: The Next Big Thing?

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Nearly everyday we are reading more about the radical changes in the economy on the near horizon and the subsequent impact they will have on our accustomed modes of living, brought about by the expanding use of robots in manufacturing and in computer-controlled functions in daily life. These changes are predicated upon rapid developments in artificial intelligence (AI) by which computers and robots can virtually design and operate themselves. We are already familiar with the advanced electronic safety features in new cars.Tesla cars are already equipped to be driver-less, just awaiting government certification. That is only the beginning of the transformations. The following remarks are mostly a summary of different views on the subject, both from what I have read by authorities in related fields and by common sense intuitive opinions.

1. AI will revolutionize the future by eliminating much of the drudgery of the world of work, opening up new opportunities for alternative creative life styles. The bulk of existing jobs in manufacturing, service, accounting and other sectors will be replaced by robots. These developments will bring us into a technically-pervasive world resembling versions of science fiction of today. These transformations will resolve much of the discord in the world today. Costs of products will be reduced dramatically. Abundance will change the world, improving everyone's life.

2. Artificial Intelligence will introduce a new massive wave of products, revolutionizing the marketplace, much as the miniaturization of electronics brought on a new generation of products and services to industry, business, and consumers. Everything that can possibly be automated will be attempted. New industries may replace old industries that fail to adapt. A new generation of super-rich may eclipse the former generation, but the status quo of prosperity and deprivation in the on-going carnival of wealth and distractions will not significantly change.

3. Much of the promise of AI is overblown. A rapid implementation of these new AI technologies would bring disruptive changes to the labor force. New jobs could not be created rapidly enough to offset job losses to robotic automation. AI could replace not only low-skilled jobs but many workers now at the technical level who are not involved in robot design. Theoretically, robots may eventually design and build themselves. Replacement jobs, when available, would tend to be at a less skilled, lower pay level.

Anything negatively affecting the consumer purchasing power of the workforce would tend to drag down the economy. The supposed low prices of AI manufactured products would compensate, but will these prices actually be significantly lower? If the entire AI enterprise remains under the ownership of our present private economic establishment, there will still be the incentive to maximize profits and investment dividends by all the usual means. Some basic commodities, such as food, would have limited advantage from AI, if any.

As AI is extended to more trivial aspects of the economy, its advantages of innovation would decrease. If our personal encounters in everyday life are conditioned by AI rather than by our conscious choices, there could be some serious effects on our mental constitution. The centuries-long on-going effects of industrialization, whereby trade skills are lost to mechanization, will continue unless steps are taken to replace these lost values by social programs. In general, unless AI applications are carefully monitored and wisely regulated, its impact upon the economy and society could be highly disruptive.. Social unrest could escalate.

4. Perhaps the most noteworthy opposing viewpoint to artificial intelligence has to do with its importance. How would it contribute to solving problems of racial discrimination, homelessness, health care, pollution, global warming, religious intolerance, widespread poverty and ignorance, refugees, class belligerence and wars, etc.? These are universal problems which economic developments have not solved, and frequently only aggravate. Artificial Intelligence, the Next Big Thing, could only be another distraction from these issues. It is not a social need in present times, nor are self-driving cars.

What we do need are new and revitalized social, economic, and political institutions that will address these problems directly. First of all, we need to secure our natural environment, which is the foundation supporting all human activity. We need to secure the livelihood of all peoples and elevate the human condition by universal education in the sciences and modern, enlightened concepts of social organization. By these means we can raise everyone's consciousness of their capacities to have a more fulfilling life, in harmony with their societies and mankind.

5. On the Far Side, (in the comical sense?) one might be concerned that robots could become so fully self-designed as to take on human characteristics other than machine intelligence. Instead of being our servants, they could become our masters, or even exterminate us. This is not only fodder for sci-fi authors, but of serious playwrights, going back to "RUR" ("Rossum's Universal Robots"), written by Karel Capek in 1920.

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Veteran, retired from several occupations (school teacher, technical writer, energy conservation business, etc.) long-time Sierra Club member

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