Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence | Bibliography and book reviews | My book on consciousness | Contact/feedback/email

(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Jobs in the Age of the Robot - Part 4: The Maid Principle

Older workers are scared at the prospect that their specialty skill will soon be performed by a machine. Students are scared at the prospect that they may be studying to perform a job that will not exist when they graduate. Both concerns are legitimate. Jobs will be created, but they will not be the jobs that we have today. Being able to adapt to new jobs, jumping from one skill to a very different skill, will make the difference between success and failure.

It is virtually impossible to give proper advice about jobs that don't exist today. It is difficult to imagine what foundations to study and what path to follow in order to be ready for a job that doesn't exist today. But here are some rules of thumb.

The most obvious rule of thumb is this: anybody whose job consists in behaving like a machine will be replaced by a machine. In highly structured societies like the USA (where one cannot get an omelette in a restaurant after 11am despite the fact that they have all the ingredients in the kitchen and even the most inept of chefs certainly knows how to cook an omelette), many jobs fall into this category. Even the people who write press releases for big corporations, even speech writers, and to some extent even engineers are asked to follow rules and regulations. The higher the percentage of their job that is governed by rules, the higher the chance that they will soon be replaced by a machine. Those same jobs are less vulnerable in countries where the "human touch" still prevails over clockwork organization.

Those people who are good at communicating, empathizing, and the other things that we expect from fellow humans, will not be replaced by machines any time soon. A nurse who simply performs a routine task and shows little or no emotional attachment to her patients will be replaced by a robot, but a nurse who also provides comfort, company and empathy is much harder to replace. There is no robot coming in the near future that can have a real conversation with a sick person or an elderly person.

If you behave and think like a machine, you are already redundant. There are many in the USA who fall into this category, people who get upset if we ask them to do something slightly different from what they have been trained to do. If you are one of those people who don't like to do anything that requires "thinking", ask yourself "why does the world need me?" Machines can do a better and friendlier job than you, with no lunch breaks, no sleep, no weekend parties and no exotic vacations. If you are a cog in a highly structured environment, you should be surprised that someone is still willing to pay you a salary.

On the other hand, if you are the one who designs the structured environment in which machines can thrive, or the one who designs the machines for that environment, or even just the one who builds, repairs and/or sells them, then we desperately need you, and we rely on you to make sure that machines will create a better world.

I actually like the idea that automation will keep challenging us to be more creative, to find higher and higher meanings to our lives. If machines can build a better world, why does the world need us? We have to answer this question. We are actually more human when we struggle to find a higher meaning to our lives than when we simply work from 8am till 5pm mindlessly following a routine as if we were robots.

Interdisciplinary thinking will be more useful than ever and today's machines make it easier than ever to get an interdisciplinary education. If you are using the power of machines like your smartphone to let machines do the thinking for you, you are probably getting dumber, and that will not help you. If you are using the power of machines to learn a lot more things than your parents did in a lot more fields, you are more likely to compete for the best jobs of the future.

A serious problem in the USA is its increasingly under-educated population, that will certainly have trouble adjusting to the new job opportunities. This is already happening in sectors like software and biotech, where the new highly-paid jobs often go to the much better educated Chinese immigrants than to the native US citizens who dropped out of school. We immigrants of Silicon Valley can't help noticing that most of the people serving us in shops and restaurants were born and raised right here in the Bay Area, and totally missed the high-tech revolution that was happening under their nose. In 1946 the USA had the #1 high school graduation rate in the world. Today (according to the OECD) it ranks 22nd among 27 industrialized nations. US students rank 25th in mathematics, 17th in science and 14th in reading. Only 46% of US students finish college.

But there are also low-level jobs that cannot be automated easily. They cannot be automated because they are so "human". A favorite example is the hotel maid. This is a very low-wage job but which robot can pick objects of a virtually infinite range of shapes and solidity and use common sense to understand what must be done with them? Try to explain to a robot what "garbage" means. You don't throw dirty underwear away (it belongs to somebody) but you do throw empty pizza boxes away. On the other hand, you don't throw it away if the guest has written "maid: please save this" on it. If the empty pizza box contains dirty tissue paper, it is meant to be thrown away. But if the paper inside the empty pizza is green with the face of a president, maybe you should think twice.

"The main lesson of 35 years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard" (Steven Pinker).

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