Automation, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning. The Rise of The Machines is being trumpeted widely. A recent cover story of the New York Post described “Amazon Go”, Amazon’s new checkout-less brick and mortar supermarket experiment, as “the next major job killer”. The accompanying picture featured the image of a 1970’s era Sci-Fi robot with the Amazon logo emblazoned across its front, the headline exclaiming “The End of Jobs”.
Popular entertainment reflects our fears. We need look no further than movie franchises like The Matrix or The Terminator to discover the deep, collective psychological fear of being replaced, or worse, controlled by the machines we create.
The predicted end of work spurs governments and economists to discuss concepts like the Universal Basic Income, income you would get just for being, not for doing anything specific. There are current UBI experiments around the world; in California, Ontario, France, and Switzerland, to name a few. The central question: What happens to people when they are no longer needed for work?
From the start of humanity, innovation has steadily and consistently replaced human and animal work with machines; efficiency, by definition, is getting more output with less input. The invention of the plow allowed fewer people to till more soil. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin created a way to eliminate the manual separation of fiber from seeds. The power loom enabled greater production of fabric by fewer people. Radio replaced the town crier. Sports and economic news feeds are now being automated, writers are no longer needed to couple scores and cliches. It would seem that no one is safe from machine induced redundancy.
But what is uniquely human? What do we have that machines can’t replace? What is the human value proposition that Artificial Intelligence (AI) can’t replicate? Maybe it’s empathy, or deep human interaction? Or maybe it’s connectivity to other people? Social sensitivity? Trust? Some say that the ability to effectively manage exchanges that are exclusive to human interaction will become the most highly sought after skill set in the workplace. Only people know what it is like to be human, obviously, and we can only hope that no amount of machine learning will replace the unique experience of humanity.
Before telephone or computer networks, we had people networks. We had communities, organizations, and churches. We were connected in a physical and meaningful way. We enriched one another, not monetarily, but emotionally. Can a machine learn how to connect emotively? I don’t know, but I suspect we’ll find out.