Recently it was proposed that the Holocene geological epoch in which we have been living for the last 11,000 years be dubbed the Anthropocene epoch, one dominated by humans. But a more appropriate name for the current geological epoch would be the Machinocene epoch, one given over to artificial intelligence and machine learning. In that regard, after fits and starts in the development of artificial intelligence over the 50 years, AI has found traction and is now being debated as a serious issue that will transform human society.
Although there are several players in this game, the US and China appear to be the ones most advanced so, it would be well to take note of some of their recent pronouncements and news..
The US and Artificial Intelligence
The US government recently published a document titled PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, designed to play catch up in probably the most important issue facing mankind today and for its future. The document, at best a case of ‘better later than never’ leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the US government is recognising, publicising and encouraging discussion of Artificial Intelligence. The document is good but it seems, rather than confronting the negatives head on, it soft-pedals them. In Obama’s recent interview about AI with MIT’s Ito, he said, “I tend to be optimistic, historically we’ve absorbed new technologies, new jobs are created, and standards of living go up”. The trip word is “historically”. Historically Obama is right but we are now entering onto alien territory where the same socio-economic rules and reference points no longer apply. Transferring or retraining human labour skills was a fairly smooth process and the shift happened slowly enough to provide new opportunities to successive generations of workers in the case of the Industrial Revolution but, as Harari wrote in his book Homo Deus:
“These institutions evolved in an era when politics moved faster than technology. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Industrial Revolution unfolded slowly enough for politicians and voters to remain one step ahead of it and regulate and manipulate its course. Yet whereas the rhythm of politics has not changed much since the days of steam, technology has switched from first gear to fourth”
Too, over the last few thousand years humans have been specialising. A taxi driver or a cardiologist specialises in narrow niches which makes it easier to replace them with AI that can do a job more efficiently and economically than a human. How do you retrain a human to do the job better than an AI?
Look at these projections done in a study of The Future of Employment by Frey and Osborne in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next twenty years:
The algorithm developed by Frey and Osborne to do the calculations estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 percent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 percent probability that the same will happen to sports referees, 97 percent that it will happen to cashiers and 96 per cent to chefs. Waiters – 94 per cent. Paralegal assistants – 94 per cent. Tour guides – 91 per cent. Bakers – 89 per cent. Bus drivers – 89 percent. Construction labourers – 88 per cent. Veterinary assistants – 86 per cent. Security guards – 84 per cent. Sailors – 83 per cent. Bartenders – 77 per cent. Archivists – 76 per cent. Carpenters – 72 per cent. Lifeguards – 67 per cent. from Homo Deus
And another study:
Nearly half of US jobs could be at risk of computerization in two decades, Oxford Martin School study shows
The probability of computerization (0 =none; 1=certain) for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010 occupational categories, along with the share in low, medium and high probability categories. The probability axis can also be seen as a rough timeline, where high-probability occupations are likely to be substituted by computer capital relatively soon. Note that the total area under all curves is equal to total U.S. employment. (Credit: Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne)
Historically technology has created challenges for labor,” Harari noted. But while previous technological revolutions also eliminating many types of jobs and created some displacement, the shift happened slowly enough to provide new opportunities to successive generations of workers. “The U.S. took 200 years to get from 98% to 2% farming employment,” he said. “Over that span of 200 years we could retrain the descendants of farmers.”
But he says the rapid pace of technological change today has changed everything. “With this technology today, that transformation might happen much faster,” he said. Self-driving cars, he suggested could quickly put 5 million truck drivers out of work.
Retraining is a solution often suggested by the technology optimists. But Ng, who knows a little about education thanks to his cofounding of Coursera, doesn’t believe retraining can be done quickly enough. “What our educational system has never done is train many people who are alive today. Things like Coursera are our best shot, but I don’t think they’re sufficient. People in the government and academia should have serious discussions about this.”
At the same time, youth, looking ahead to academic studies and careers should be taking note of these employment trends. China is taking steps to do so and statistics show China is now the number one producer of undergraduates in science and engineering.
To quote from the US National Science Foundation:
According to Indicators 2016, China is now the second-largest performer of R&D, accounting for 20 percent of global R&D as compared to the United States, which accounts for 27 percent.
Between 2003 and 2013, China ramped up its R&D investments at an average of 19.5 percent annually, greatly exceeding that of the U.S. China made its increases despite the Great Recession. Developing economies that start at a lower base tend to grow much more rapidly than those that are already functioning at a high level; nonetheless, China’s growth rate in this arena has been remarkable.
China is also playing an increasingly prominent role in knowledge and technology-intensive industries, including high-tech manufacturing and knowledge-intensive services. These industries account for 29 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and for nearly 40 percent of U.S. GDP. China ranks second in high-tech manufacturing, where the U.S. maintains a slim lead with a global share of 29 percent to China’s 27 percent. While China plays a smaller role in commercial knowledge-intensive services (business, financial, and information), it has now surpassed Japan to move into third place behind the United States and the European Union.
China has also made significant strides in S&E education, which is critical to supporting R&D as well as knowledge and technology-intensive industries. China is the world’s number-one producer of undergraduates with degrees in science and engineering. These fields account for 49 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in China, compared to 33 percent of all bachelor’s degrees the U.S. awards.
The US, China and Artificial Intelligence
An equally serious problem is the lack of global collaboration, a problem exacerbated by international tensions, particularly those between the US and China.
To quote from the US policy document:
“In support of U.S. foreign policy priorities in this space—including ensuring U.S. international leadership and economic competitiveness—the U.S. Government has engaged on AI R&D and policy issues in bilateral discussions with other countries, including Japan, the Republic of Korea, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and Italy, as well as in multilateral fora”
And China, why are here no discussions with China? China has recently ramped up its investment in AI and made it a top priority. As one link below shows, China has now surpassed the US in both quantity and quality of AI research. The mentions of China are only with regard to preventing China from achieving success rather than working with China for the good of all concerned. His only reference to China was a thinly veiled threat, When you have countries around the world who see America as the preeminent cyber power, now is the time for us to say, “We’re willing to restrain ourselves if you are willing to restrain yourselves.” The challenge is the most sophisticated state actors—Russia, China, Iran—don’t always embody the same values and norms that we do”. “China is poised to be a leader in AI because of its great reserve in AI talent, excellent engineering education and the massive market for AI adoption,” says Kai-Fu Lee, a former Microsoft and Google executive who is now chief executive of Sinovation Ventures.
The US, as always, want to dictate the rules of the game and continues to make the mistake thinking that by isolating China, by excluding it, this will succeed in stymieing Chinese scientific progress and growth. This has already shown to be fallacious and has worked against US interests.
First, in the case of Supercomputers, despite the US having banned the export of Intel computer chips, China, developed its own computer chips, built the world’s most powerful single supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight, which is nearly three times as powerful as the world’s second best (also Chinese) and five times as powerful as the top US supercomputer. Then, the US blocked export of sonar technology to China so the Chinese developed their own more advanced system in the underwater Qian Long2 submarine.
Although the US is at odds with Russia, the two continue to work together in the International Space Station but not so with China. The US congress has banned any such cooperation with China. NASA was banned from relations with China hoping that would impede Chinese Space progress but, as Joan Johnson-Freese, a member of the US Naval College, wrote, “if anything it has given the Chinese impetus to work faster and more broadly to develop their own technology. For Johnson-Freese, the U.S. missed a big opportunity here. “Working with China, I think we would have had an opportunity to shape their space agenda. But now China has developed a very aggressive, across-the-board space program on their own and we ended up with less control, not more control.”
The Chinese have moved beyond copying or learning from the West and they are now developing technology the equal, if not superior, to that of the West. It is now time for the West to begin learning from China.