Published 02 August 2017 Category: Business, Insights

What If AI Fails?

We’ve been told the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution is right around the corner. But what if it isn’t? What if this is just another false dawn? After all, we’ve been set to harvest the rich bounty of AI before. It wouldn’t be the first time our dreams of thinking machines are dashed.

Technology turning out to be a false promise in general could mean that we  - and our children, and their children  -  will have to get used to a world of diminishing prosperity.

The modern narrative argues that technological advances come in waves that drive economic growth which in turn increase our prosperity. Consider, for example, the washing machine. It frees up hours of hard manual work. This time can be spent doing other specialised work or for leisure  - which, in turn, creates new markets and industries (never mind that even where washing was widely outsourced to commercial laundry services, automation brought it in-house, falling disproportionately on the shoulders of women who, to this day, after coming home from work, often put in a “second shift” in domestic duties.)

And contrary to popular belief, the world is not changing faster than ever before. In fact, it’s not even changing as fast as it was 100 years ago.

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As software is eating the world, so automation is eradicating our jobs. But  -  unlike in the past  -  new ones aren’t being created to replace them. And, despite the advances of information technology, productivity growth has slowed down.

So what do we need AI for anyways? Try googling “what can’t we do without AI”. The responses are about what AI can and can’t do currently.

Or to put it another way, what would someone living in 1870 have predicted as possible to do with electricity when it was easily and ubiquitously available? Or rather, what would they have seen as impossible without it? The quotidian technologies and tools of our time are so mundane to us that they’ve become virtually invisible. So what will we miss out on if strong AI doesn’t happen?

  • We won’t have robots to talk to the lonely and care for the elderly

  • We won’t have massive, perfectly coordinated networks with optimised flow and distribution — think traffic networks (those self-driving Teslas that act as taxis when you don’t need them), smart farming and other systems for resource optimisation

  • We won’t have total surveillance

  • But we might have flying cars!

What does it matter if we can’t imagine what the world with AI looks like? Not being able to predict the future is hardly a new problem. But AI is taken as a given.

Some are worried that dabbling with super-AI could spell the extinction of the human race. Others are trying to figure out how society can work if robots do all the jobs. Denizens of the tech and startup culture bubbles are generally blithe, ecstatically trying to build the future as fast as possible, one app at a time.

Without AI we may be spared the robots.

Hoping to solve the problems of today with technology yet to be invented is like a gambler in the hole trying to get out by continuing to bet. We’re as excited by the idea of colonising Mars as much as everyone else. But not at the opportunity cost of not solving the problems facing us on Earth. That’s a bet too big.